Last year, the federal government enacted legislation (American Rescue Plan Act) to help state and local governments recover from the cost of the COVID-19 virus. It was noted recently in a regional newspaper that Brunswick County received $28 million of federal funds. The legislation allows governments to use up to $10 million to recoup “losses” incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite how their budgets were affected. The Board of Commissioners had to make a budget “switcheroo” when they designated most of these latter funds in a questionable manner—purchase of public safety radio upgrades, mobile command vehicle, and rapid response vehicle. The Board “struck out” when it failed to give these special funds to The Board of Education to address at least one of several school problems. Did the two Boards have a serious discussion about this matter? Funds were not used to: Strike 1) Address the teacher shortage by significantly increasing the local salary supplement—strategy used by an adjoining county, Strike 2) – Purchase technological items for students as a strategy to close the wide “achievement gap” among four groups of students—26-74% range of proficiency for K-12 state exams in 2021, and/or Strike 3) Increase the number of counselors and social workers to deal with student health and safety issues (bullying, depression, absenteeism, homelessness, and hunger). Commissioners are lucky that we are not following the baseball rule: Three strikes and you are out!
Many years ago, when I was in grade school, a weekly or monthly current event paper would portray our country as the winner of all wars and one that never made mistakes. I was confused because my Sunday school lessons taught me that good men and women in the Bible made mistakes and sometimes lost battles. Unfortunately, a similar effort is being conducted today to “whitewash” the school curriculum. More than 20 State Boards of Education, the NC State Superintendent, and the Brunswick County Board of Education have demonized and banned Critical Race Theory (CRT) from the classroom for political gain.
What is CRT? The coeditor of the book, “CRT: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement” states that the “heart of CRT is to shed light on the unfair and inequitable ways that racial power has been woven into the fabric of our institutions”. Under CRT, “the problem of racism is a social problem … it is an approach that’s not interested in assigning individual blame or guilt...”. Therefore, claims that CRT is “unpatriotic and anti-American” does not hold water. If I were still teaching in the BC School System, would I be suspended or fired for sharing the following race-related obstacles in my life with students? 1) Following months of family labor, money from our farm products (sharecropping) was shared equally with the landowner. 2) The public swimming pool was switched to private ownership following the 1954 Supreme Court Decision on desegregation, and 3) Only “second hand” books were received in high school.
It was noted recently that the school curriculum should reflect Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. Therefore, the Board should immediately rescind its ban on CRT—a study of systemic racism initiated by legal scholars of color fifty years ago and taught now in law schools-- and refocus on the numerous COVID-19 related problems (academic performance, mental health, etc.) facing our schools.
The 2018-19 budget passed recently by the NC General Assembly reminds me of a shell game (three shells and a pea) played during an election year. Wikipedia states that the game “is portrayed as a gambling game, but in reality, it is almost always a confidence trick used to perpetrate fraud.” The tricksters rig the game by moving or hiding the ball during play. The Raleigh politicians announced a 6.5% salary increase for teachers, but there is NO increase for some veteran teachers (15-24 years), teacher assistants, and custodial staff. Some teachers went seven years without an increase. Teaching Fellow and Master Programs, health and retirement benefits, and tenure were either cut or eliminated during this period. Over $75 million of federal funds were allocated recently to North Carolina to expand pre-K programs. However, a “sleight of hand” move appropriated $50million of those funds elsewhere leaving 1000 additional pre-K students on the waiting list. As taxpayers, we must tell our legislators to adopt the Price Is Right (shell game spinoff) guideline: No further shuffling after the first prize (salaries) is announced. The 2019 tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations—currently the lowest rate in the country—must be eliminated. Then, such mandates as a decrease in class sizes (K-3), Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) requiring additional staff, and school safety programs can be adequately funded.
Recently, a state political leader bragged that his party was very good at accomplishing its primary goal: WINNING ELECTIONS! Based upon their belated completion of the state budget on September 18—79 days after the official deadline of July 1 and 25 days after the start of a new school year, I suggest that their primary goal be changed to GOVERNING EFFECTIVELY. A state advocacy group for education wrote that “while the new biennial budget did restore some funding cut in previous budget cycles, the overall investment does not even meet pre-recession levels” for public education.
The per pupil spending is almost $900 less per student than the 2008 level. Although North Carolina continues to be below the national average in teacher pay—now 42nd, almost 70% of teachers will NOT receive a salary increase. Yes, teacher assistants will finally be funded at the 2014-15 level, but it is still ~30% less than the 2008 level. While public schools will struggle to keep up with the growth in student population and its related costs, taxes given to vouchers for private school students will grow by 130% (~$42 million) during the next two years.
We need to tell the politicians in Raleigh to stop their systematic dismantling of the public school system in North Carolina. It may be “too little” (funding), but it’s not “too late” to save our system.
There is a saying that “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. Unfortunately, Republicans didn’t follow that advice approximately ten years ago when they took over Brunswick County Schools and the NC Legislature. As noted in a state-wide publication earlier this year, The GOP had slashed per pupil funding—as low as 39th nationally—while shifting funds to private and unregulated charter schools. Their overall poor treatment of teachers—ending of tenure and the Teaching Fellows Program, no pay increase for several years, and layoffs of teaching assistants—has led to their fleeing from the Brunswick County classroom to those in adjoining counties or states. More than two thirds of the Federal funds allocated for prekindergarten programs ($75 million) was shifted a few years ago to other areas of the state budget.
Based upon the NC Constitution which guarantees a sound and basic education for all students and led to the Leandro Court Case, an independent consultant group recommended $1.7 billion in additional school funding this year. Although the state has $8 billion in reserve funds, GOP judges on the NC Supreme Court are currently trying to delay and/or deny this funding. Please ask local candidates for the Board of Education and NC General Assembly if they are also willing to deny funding to help low-income students and those with disabilities, increase pay for educators, and expand the prekindergarten program. Don’t allow politicians to continue to make children “pay the price” for their partisan decisions.
Although GOP leaders claim that public school employees were winners in the 2014-15 budget fight, the “fine print” indicates that they were overall losers. Approximately 3,300 teacher assistances will lose their jobs when funding is cut by $105 million. Many experienced teachers will lose their longevity pay and receive less than a 2% salary increase. Funding for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which provides classroom support for teachers, will be cut by 10%. Although it has been almost 10 years since new textbooks were purchased, the book allowance for the entire state will be one million dollars—only sixty cents per student.
Even more devastating is the elimination of an 80-year old law that automatically provides additional funding for the annual enrollment growth in school systems—possible “back door” way to increase class sizes. A GOP House leader said that he wasn’t concerned with this policy shift and then added, “I have never seen so much squealing about getting more money.”
Of course, his supporters (budget winners) do not have to squeal because funding for private school vouchers was increased by $840,000. The cap limit for charter schools was increased significantly even though the salaries and bonuses for certain managers and administrators will not be publicized. These bonuses and profits of the management companies, paid out of your tax dollars, are based upon the student performance gap between charter (self-selecting) and NC public schools—pitiful ranking of 46th nationwide in per pupil spending.
Let’s make sure that General Assembly leaders are squealing in November when they realize that their election year gimmicks didn’t work.
American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)
It was my intention to just listen to Brunswick County Commissioners and employees during two recent meetings—special meeting on American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA Project Priorities) and regular Board meeting. However, my plans began to change when I heard that the Board would not respond in a positive manner to citizens begging for the extension of water lines into their communities and that COVID-19 designated funds would be used for inappropriate purchases. Since I served on the Brunswick County Planning Board approximately ten years ago, I know that there are areas in the County where low-income communities are located very close to subdivisions with water lines. What is so difficult about setting aside a couple of million dollars from the $28 million in the American Rescue Plan for Brunswick County to extend a few lines and then transfer the hookup fees paid by the new customers back to the federal government later. Have you ever heard the wise saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? If so, why do you think commissioners are allotting one half of the COVID-19 related funding ($10 million total) to purchases related to law enforcement? Funds designated for the mobile command vehicle and a new Armor Rapid Response Vehicle should be redirected to “nonprofits” or businesses that were requesting assistance in the Board meeting. Then grant programs could be created to help owners of daycare centers and drivers who provide transportation for healthcare patients. Public health or safety “shelters” could be established. Let’s use the funds—as planned—to rescue Brunswick County citizens.