By, Lisa Baldwin – With Christmas around the corner, North Carolina Students First, launches its second annual Naughty & Nice list, chronicling some of the excellent actions – and poor decisions – made by the North Carolina General Assembly and Buncombe School Board in 2016.
Nice! School choice is increasing in North Carolina. All Buncombe County high schoolers (even those homeschooled) can take advantage of free classes at AB Tech for 16-18 year olds and get college credit! Opportunity Scholarships mean $4,200 to attend a K-12 private school, if the public school is failing to meet student needs. More students apply for these (applications open on Feb. 1, 2017) than are available, making a lottery system necessary. Five charter schools, including two with high schools, attract many more students than they can accommodate. Buncombe also has more homeschoolers per capita than any other county in North Carolina. More than 10% of Buncombe students are homeschooled. Public schools must respond to the competition by upping academics and vocational programs.
Naughty! The Buncombe County alternative school, Community High, will be torn down and rebuilt in Swannanoa, a less than ideal location in the eastern part of the county. Students have to be bused to their “home” high school and then to CHS, shortening their school day by over one hour. It would make more sense to use Woodfin Elementary, centrally located just north of Asheville. This tiny school of 150 students could easily be redistricted, allowing these students to fill empty seats in nearby K-4 elementaries, giving them access to more learning resources. Alternatively, the Community High students could attend special vocational programs at their home high school; “schools within a school” are the norm in North Carolina. There are many options not being discussed by the school board.
Naughty! In October, the news broke that Buncombe’s school superintendent, Tony Baldwin had failed to disclose conflicts of interest. He appropriated money and contracts to his sister’s organization, WRESA. Again, without reporting his conflict of interest to the school board, he recommended hiring his son at A.C. Reynolds High School and then moving him to the STEM High. He also gave contracts to two companies that employed his other son. Supt. Baldwin should have stepped aside and allowed the asst. superintendent to make the recommendations. He went further to give Erwin High and Community High education contracts to the math specialist’s lesbian partner, Peggy Baker. Ms. Baker’s background includes serving as a locomotive mechanic, union staff member and community liaison in the Commission on Human Relations under the late Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago.
Nice! The federal Common Core standards were “repealed and replaced” by the North Carolina legislature but it hasn’t happened. Common Core-based curriculum is still in place. However, President-elect Trump’s selection for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, said that putting “kids first” means “expanding choices and options to give every child the opportunity for a quality education regardless of their zip code or their family circumstances. This means letting states set their own high standards and finally putting an end to the federalized Common Core.”
Naughty! Enrollment is in decline but the Buncombe County school board, with county commission approval, continues to build additional schools. No one can say ‘no’ to spending when it’s “for the children”! The real beneficiaries seem to be the real estate industry and construction contractors. Four of the 6 county school districts now have intermediate schools, taking 5th graders out of the elementary schools and 6th graders from the middle schools. The weak argument is “over-crowding”, in spite of a district loss of over 1,000 students. According to state guidelines, none of the Buncombe schools is over-capacity. But the state doesn’t account for band rooms that hold 60 students and special ed classrooms with only a handful. Taking this into account, Avery’s Creek Elementary is the only school that might be considered crowded. The Roberson District actually could have used a fourth elementary school, not an intermediate. The best solution to unbalanced school populations is to re-draw attendance lines at the kindergarten level, so older students don’t have to change schools mid-stream. The costly intermediate school model has failed our children with too many transitions to new schools and parents not vested in a two year program; the short timeline makes it nearly impossible to build a sense of community. Construction money can be spent on learning rather than brick and mortar with permission from the legislature.
Nice! On the Nice List are hardworking teachers, who deserve a round of applause. Many put in extra hours daily to ensure every child receives a year’s worth of learning. Although they are not paid bonuses for extra duties like administrators (as much as $16,000 for some principals), they show their care and concern for educating our children on a daily basis. The state-approved raises for all teachers and administrators, upped North Carolina to number 7 in the country for state-funded teacher pay, adding an additional $1 billion since Republicans gained control of the legislature. The Buncombe County Commissioners also voted unanimously to raise the county teacher pay supplement. As a school board member, I repeatedly asked the board to stop blaming the state and ask the commissioners to increase the county portion of teacher pay. They finally did it.
If parents and taxpayers take the time to attend school board meetings, speak in public comment or email school board members, the Nice List can only get longer. It takes an engaged public to ensure students come first. Stay up-to-date at https://www.facebook.com/buncombestudentsfirst/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.