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Legislature prepares to adjourn, but not before making some last minute education moves

The General Assembly is planning to adjourn today, but before they leave lawmakers pushed through a number of proposals that have the potential to reshape education in North Carolina. 

The adjournment resolution will suspend the session for now, but lawmakers will return in November after the elections. On November 27, the session will be back on and there are no restrictions on what legislation can be considered. 

Before finishing up what was supposed to be its last voting session Thursday night, the House also approved a study of the needs of high-achieving, low-income students.

The study committee will meet through the rest of this year and look at best practices nationally as well as what it would take to reestablish a school focused on this student demographic. A school called North Carolina Advancement operated under a similar charge in the 1960s. 

The General Assembly also passed this week a constitutional amendment which, if North Carolina voters approve it, would change the constitution to state that legislative lawmakers have power over the appointments of any boards or commissions created by the body. One of the boards that would be affected is the State Board of Education.

Governor’s nominations to the State Board of Education

Meanwhile, in a joint session yesterday, the North Carolina General Assembly rejected two of Governor Roy Cooper’s nominees to the State Board of Education and approved one who is already serving on the Board. 

Reginald Kenan’s reappointment sailed through the nomination process with no opposition. He is a Duplin County lawyer first appointed to the State board in 2009 by former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. 

But when Sandra Byrd’s name was called for consideration, Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, voiced his opposition. 

Byrd is a retired UNC-Asheville associate professor of education and a former high school teacher and Buncombe County teacher of the year. 

Barefoot asked lawmakers to vote against her, citing lawsuits from the State Board of Education against State Superintendent Mark Johnson and the Rules Review Commission. Both of those cases went before the State Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled against the State Board (though the State Board has claimed victory in the case against Johnson), but Barefoot called them expensive losses for the Board. 

“I’m afraid with Ms. Byrd’s nomination, we cannot help but expect more of the same,” Barefoot said. 

He noted Byrd has been the litigant in another education-related case. Though Barefoot did not state the case, Byrd was a named plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the state’s opportunity scholarship program. 

Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, and Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, however, both spoke in favor of Byrd. Fisher said Byrd had been active in education her whole career and that she was well regarded in education circles. Van Duyn challenged Barefoot’s argument against Byrd, saying just because she had a different point of view did not mean she should not serve on the State Board. 

“To exclude people with valid, passionate convictions because they don’t agree with yours, I think, is a very poor reason not to permit someone to serve,” she said. 

Ultimately, lawmakers voted against Byrd 107 to 56. 

J.B. Buxton was the last nominee up for consideration. A former state Department of Public Instruction administrator, Buxton is a former high school English teacher who has also served as education advisor to former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and legislative director to the State Board of Education. 

Republicans gave no explanation for their rejection of Buxton. Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, the House majority leader, stood up and simply implored the chamber to vote no. 

A number of Democrats spoke in support of Buxton and asked why he should be rejected without reason. 

“Ladies and gentleman we’ve been offered no explanation as to why it would be inappropriate to support this nomination,” said Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange. 

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, added his support as well.

“He is a close advisor to both Democrats and Republicans…” he said. “I am baffled and perplexed as to why we are voting down this nomination.”

Buxton was rejected 98-64. 

Buxton and Byrd would have replaced State Board members Wayne McDevitt and Patricia Willoughby, whose terms expired at the end of March 2017. Cooper announced his three nominees in very early May 2017, more than a year ago. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.