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What will the Governor give legislative Republicans for Christmas?

As the most recent General Assembly session winds down, a technical corrections bill made its way through the legislature with serious implications for two separate school districts. Now that the bill has passed, Gov. Roy Cooper is faced with a decision that amounts to a Catch-22. 

Wayne County Public Schools was anxiously keeping an eye on the bill because of a provision related to the Innovative School District (ISD). Wayne County’s Carver Heights Elementary was in the crosshairs of the state to become the second school selected for the ISD. 

Since realizing the school was a target, Wayne County undertook extensive turnaround efforts. It will take awhile for the long-term consequence of those efforts to become clear, but in the short-term, the county’s strategy was a huge success at the State Board of Education. 

State Board members, faced with a statutory mandate to pick the school, did so, but they made clear they want the current turnaround efforts to continue and if they have their way, Wayne County will continue to operate the school even after it joins the ISD. 

That last part, letting Wayne County operate the school as an ISD school, was the focus of a provision in the legislature’s technical corrections bill. Under the original language, the bill said school districts can operate an ISD school from their district assuming certain stipulations are met and the State Board approves. After going through a conference committee, the provision changed. The language ultimately passed doesn’t mention districts acting as operators in the ISD at all. Instead, it specifically lets Wayne County ask the State Board of Education to adopt a restart reform model for Carver Heights, something it has already done. A restart model allows a school district to operate a low-performing school with the same flexibility as a charter school. 

Furthermore, the provision repeals the order that the State Board has to have two schools in the ISD by 2019-20. It already has one. Until the provision passed, it needed another and Carver Heights was going to be it. Now, with that law weakened, the State Board can choose not to force Carver Heights into the ISD. 

If the State Board chooses the route of approving Carver Heights Elementary as a restart, it gives the school a two-year reprieve. Under the new provision, the school could begin operating under restart next year. If it fails to make the necessary gains in the ensuing two years, it would have to go into the ISD in the 2021 school year. Wayne County would have two years to prove itself.

As might be expected, Wayne County School leaders are pleased according to a press release the district sent out. 

“The positive support from State Board of Education members and State legislators about Wayne County Public Schools improvement efforts currently underway at Carver Heights Elementary has been absolutely tremendous,” states Dr. Michael Dunsmore, superintendent. “We are extremely pleased with this legislation that is now on its way to the Governor’s Office. Our school district is highly appreciative of our local legislative delegation and the bi-partisan support that led to the passing of this legislation in both the House and Senate. Their actions speak volumes, and further affirm our district’s ability to change the academic trajectory of this school.”

Now the Catch-22. 

Four Charlotte-Mecklenburg towns are vying to open charter schools catering to their local student populations. The plan has raised fears that the schools would lead to resegregation in the area. A bill passed during the short session of the General Assembly last summer cleared the way for the charter schools to open with one possible hurdle remaining. 

The bill did not have a provision that would allow teachers at these potential town charter schools to opt into the state’s health and retirement plans, which could disincentive teachers from joining the schools. That provision, however, was put in the technical corrections legislation that passed the General Assembly last week — all these many months later. 

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which is dead-set against the creation of these charter schools, wants Gov. Cooper to veto the bill. But if Cooper vetoed the bill, that would also kill the provision that lets Carver Heights off the hook for the ISD. 

Cooper has up to 10 days to choose whether or not to veto the bill, and if he waits long enough, it could mean the General Assembly would have to reconvene to veto the bill the week of Christmas, something lawmakers may be loath to do. 

It’s not a lump of coal, but it would still be a heck of a Christmas present for Cooper to give legislative Republicans. 

It remains to be seen what the Governor will do, but he is faced with an unenviable choice. He either aides a school district desperately trying to hold onto its school, or he helps four towns separate themselves from the traditional public school system.

For a Democrat like Cooper, it is a choice without an easy answer. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.