NC Senate sustains veto of law that would have barred future school mask mandates

When North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the manipulatively titled “Free the Smiles Act” last month, House Speaker Tim Moore promised an override.

Unfortunately for Moore, the bill will not be making it back to the House for a vote, as Senate Democrats successfully sustained Cooper’s veto on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 173 would have made it illegal for school districts to require students to wear masks:

When this legislation was first passed by both chambers of the General Assembly, it was supported by a handful of Democrats, including two in the Senate.

A successful override (three fifths of members present voting yes) would have required those senators to stand with Republicans and support the measure again.

They did not.

Leadership isn’t about blind party loyalty, but it is about making sensible decisions on behalf of your constituents.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we have no idea what the future holds when it comes to COVID-19 or potentially other viruses down the road.

It’s shocking that the party of small government thinks it’s a good idea to take away the power of local health departments and boards of education to respond to their communities’ health needs, but that’s where divisive politics, social media misinformation, and the utter loss of common sense have brought us.

Just be glad North Carolina Republicans don’t have a veto-proof supermajority.

Democrats must sustain Governor Cooper’s veto of anti-mask bill or we’re in deep trouble

After a week of speculation, this afternoon Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the unfortunately titled “Free the Smiles Act” (SB 173) which would have given parents the right to opt out of any local mask mandates without providing a reason or medical documentation.

In other words, no school district would ever be able to require masks.

Governor Cooper pointed out that districts are currently already moving in the direction of making masks optional (at his recommendation), adding that such a law would “tie the hands of public health officials in the future.”

S173-BD-NBC-9460

We still have no idea how this pandemic will play out, and taking away local flexibility to make decisions based on their community’s health would be an extremely dangerous move.

There will now be efforts in the General Assembly to override the governor’s veto.

The bill will first head back to the Senate since that’s where it originated. If all members are present it would take 30 votes to overturn the veto in the Senate. When this bill was voted on in the Senate last week, it got 28 yes votes. Two Republicans were absent, and these two Democrats voted yes:

Senator Kirk deViere (Cumberland): (919) 733-5776, Kirk.deViere@ncleg.gov

Senator Ben Clark (Cumberland, Hoke): (919) 733-9349, Ben.Clark@ncleg.gov

If the governor’s veto is successfully overridden in the Senate, the bill would then go back to the House, where the following seven Democrats voted to approve it before it was vetoed:

Representative Brian Farkas (Pitt): 919-733-5757, Brian.Farkas@ncleg.gov

Representative Charles Graham (Robeson): 910-739-3969, Charles.Graham@ncleg.gov

Representative Ricky Hurtado (Alamance): 919-733-5820, Ricky.Hurtado@ncleg.gov

Representative Joe John (Wake): 919-733-5530, Joe.John@ncleg.gov

Representative Garland Pierce (Hoke, Scotland): 910-369-2844, Garland.Pierce@ncleg.gov

Representative Shelly Willingham (Edgecombe, Martin): 252-442-8659, Shelly.Willingham@ncleg.gov

Representative Michael Wray (Halifax, Northampton): 252-535-3297, Michael.Wray@ncleg.gov

If you believe that our local health departments and school boards need to retain the authority to be able to require masks in schools when COVID rates become dangerously high, please take the time to contact the legislators above and urge them to stand with the governor and sustain the veto.

CMS student leaders overwhelmingly oppose Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education dropping mask mandate

At next Tuesday’s meeting, Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education members will consider changes to the mask mandate our schools have had in place since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

It’s a highly controversial topic which has seen school board meetings around the country turn into something resembling the Jerry Springer Show, complete with regular references to “face diapers” and ill-conceived Nazi Germany analogies.

Missing from almost all of these conversations about masks have been the voices of the individuals who are most impacted by our policy decisions: those of our students.

Generation Nation, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s largest student organization, surveyed members of the CMS high school student advisory council last week, finding that 81% of them believe the CMS Board of Education should NOT lift the mask mandate at this time.

Students also indicated they were worried about the potential for bullying of students who opt to continue to wear masks in the absence of a mandate and about the increase in stress on students by lifting the mask requirement.

Tune in on Tuesday to see how our elected officials respond to those concerns.

Masks work: Latest data shows all mask-optional counties surrounding Mecklenburg have higher COVID rates

graphic by Rae LeGrone

At last week’s meeting of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, a board member called for revisiting the district’s mask mandate, saying, “Despite the indoor mask mandate, Mecklenburg County disease prevalence data is basically the same as the entire region. Most of the counties around us do not have mask mandates.

It’s a claim that deserves investigating.

According to today’s New York Times average daily cases per 100,000 data, every single county surrounding Mecklenburg with a masks-optional policy for schools has a higher COVID case rate. The only exception to that trend is Cabarrus, where just a few days ago the Board of Education voted to stop requiring masks.

Masks work.

On Wednesday, new County Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington will recommend that the Board of County Commissioners rescind the mandate requiring masks be worn in all indoor public spaces in Mecklenburg County.

There is no word whether Dr. Washington will recommend masks continue to be worn in schools.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Strong Schools NC Toolkit’s most recently updated edition (Feb 10) says “It is recommended that schools have a universal masking policy in place for everyone (age 2 and older), in areas of high or substantial transmission.”  Mecklenburg County is still experiencing high community transmission, as is every county in our state.

The CDC continues to advise that masks should be worn indoors by all students, staff, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status.

You can communicate your thoughts on the matter to Dr. Washington at

Raynard.Washington@mecklenburgcountync.gov

Contact your county commissioners to let them know how you think they should vote as well:

George.Dunlap@mecklenburgcountync.gov,
Vilma.Leake@mecklenburgcountync.gov,
elaine.powell@mecklenburgcountync.gov,
laura.meier@mecklenburgcountync.gov,
Mark.Jerrell@mecklenburgcountync.gov,
susan.rodriguez-mcdowell@mecklenburgcountync.gov,
leigh.altman@mecklenburgcountync.gov,
ella.scarborough@mecklenburgcountync.gov,
pat.cotham@mecklenburgcountync.gov




Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education to consider doubling employee retention bonuses

At its Tuesday, February 8 meeting, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education will consider a proposal by CMS Human Resources to double the employee retention incentives that were approved just prior to winter break.

Under the proposal, all full time employees would receive a total of $5000 in bonus money. Part time employees would receive $2500.

If approved, the bonuses would bring Charlotte Mecklenburg in line with incentives paid to Wake County Public Schools staff. The incentives are being funded by federal American Rescue Plan dollars.

The proposal including payout dates is included below:

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Charlotte Mecklenburg educators petition district leadership to address staffing crisis by increasing retention bonuses

Local education advocates are calling on Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools leadership to deepen their commitment to staff by increasing retention bonuses that were announced earlier this month. They’re asking for colleagues and allies to sign and share a petition asking for the bonuses to be doubled.

On December 8 the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education unanimously approved a district proposal to use federal ESSER funds to pay $2500 bonuses to all full-time staff and $1250 to part-time staff.

The move came as news broke that nearly 10% of CMS teachers have either resigned or retired since the beginning of the school year.

According to the district’s plan, half of the bonus will be paid this week and the other half next fall. After taxes that means full-time staff will receive approximately $800 in local bonus money for this entire school year.

Ink 4 Ed Equity, a group of advocates that raised thousands of dollars to provide internet connectivity to Charlotte Mecklenburg students in need last year, says that amount is unlikely to end the staffing crisis.

In a petition that was released today, the group notes the heavy toll the loss of so many educators is having on remaining staff and student outcomes and points out that Wake County Public Schools’ retention bonuses come to $5000–with three quarters being paid out before the end of the current school year.

The petition concludes by saying “Ink 4 Ed Equity and our allies call on CMS leadership to increase retention bonuses to $5000 for all full-time and $2500 for part-time staff to sustain our current workforce.”

You can read, sign and share the petition at the below link or sign the embedded version underneath it.

https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/higher-retention-bonuses-for-all-cms-employees

Proposed CMS bonus stands at half what Wake County Schools employees will receive

An emergency meeting of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education has been called for 6 pm this evening with just one action item on the agenda:  “Recommend Approval of Employee Retention Incentives.”

According to the Charlotte Observer, CMS officials will ask the board to approve bonuses of $2500 for full time employees and $1250 for part time employees.  Half would be paid this month and the other half in September 2022.

In October, CMS Chief Human Resources Officer Christine Pejot called the number of district teachers who had retired or resigned since the beginning of this school year “staggering.”  At the time the district had lost just over 500 educators.  

That number has since ballooned to nearly 900–roughly 10% of the district’s total teacher workforce.

It’s excellent news that CMS plans to use a portion of its federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to reward employees who have stuck with the district through extraordinarily difficult times.  Such a move could help to stem the exodus of teachers which is negatively impacting student learning and ratcheting up the workload on educators who have remained in the classroom.

However, it’s important to have some context for how CMS’s plan measures up against what other districts are doing.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools is most often compared with Wake County Public Schools.  Both districts are similar in size and face many of the same issues when it comes to staffing.

Wake County has chosen to give its employees $5000 in bonus money–exactly double what is being proposed by CMS.

Wake’s employees got $1250 in November 2021 and will see three more payments of $1250, in January, May and November of 2022.

Just a month after pitiful raises in the state budget left educators feeling undervalued and disrespected, CMS has the opportunity to use this federal money to make a move that would show employees how much it respects them and appreciates their continued commitment to our community. 

Lowballing educators by giving them half what their colleagues in Wake County are getting is not the way to accomplish that.

“I’m tired of having to write grants for basic supplies in my classroom”: New report illuminates constitutional crisis of North Carolina’s chronically underfunded schools

This week Progress NC published a comprehensive report about the state of North Carolina schools called True Reports of Underfunded Education (T.R.U.E.).

Coming on the heels of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s comically inept indoctrination report and right in the middle of both state budget negotiations and important new developments in the Leandro case, the T.R.U.E. report details how North Carolina’s failure to adequately fund public schools is impacting the state’s students and public school staff in real terms.

The T.R.U.E. web portal fielded 592 submissions over the course of just one month, easily surpassing the number Robinson’s witch hunt collected in a much longer period of time. Submissions were evenly distributed throughout the state, representing snapshots of life in both rural and urban schools.

Participants in the T.R.U.E. project shined the spotlight on low wages, unreasonably high work loads, shortage of basic supplies, overcrowded classrooms, unsafe pandemic practices, and crumbling school buildings as the reality facing North Carolina’s students and school staff:

“Our school has vacancies that need to be filled, and NO subs, so support staff and classroom teachers alike are being pulled to provide coverage for teacherless classrooms. As the librarian, there are many days where I spend half my day providing this coverage, and the media center is closed”.

“Planning periods are routinely taken away, which leaves us with no time to do non-instructional things like planning and grading, yet we are expected to do them. We already exist with no lunch breaks, working 8-9 hour days with no breaks and then we have to stay after to do the other things which are required of us. It is just plain wrong”.

“We are still using PCs from the early 2000s. We have smartboards that are no longer interactive because the technology isn’t supported or is outdated. We have a shortage of paper towels and cleaning supplies in our district”. 

“There’s mold. There are windows that don’t work. There are rooms that don’t have working AC. We have places in our school where students walk over wooden pallets when it rains because of the water puddling on the floor”.

“I have witnessed classes that were designed to have a maximum of 25 students being crammed with 38 and 40 students”.

“The very least we should be able to expect is a physically safe learning environment where the air is safe to breathe, the plumbing and electricity works, and kids can travel the halls safely”.

These eyewitness accounts from inside North Carolina schools help explain the urgency behind Superior Court Judge David Lee’s ruling this week that the state must transfer $1.7 billion in reserve funds to cover the first two years of the Leandro Remedial Plan.

Lee’s decision comes 17 years after the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the state had failed in its constitutional obligations to provide a sound education, ordering the funding deficiencies to be corrected and assigning Superior Court to monitor the state’s compliance.

Far from embracing their constitutional duties, the leaders of both the North Carolina House and Senate have repeatedly thumbed their noses at the court’s attempts to carry out its mandate.

Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger–who has repeatedly blocked school bonds from state ballots despite a staggering $13 billion in statewide facility needs–has mockingly suggested that “if judges want to get into the field of appropriating they need to run for the legislature.”

House Speaker Tim Moore this week went even further, branding Lee a “rogue judge” and threatening that any attempt to compel state legislators to fund the Leandro plan “would amount to judicial misconduct and will be met with the strongest possible response”–a likely reference to an attempt to remove Lee from office.

Think about that for a minute.

We have a Supreme Court which has ordered the state to adequately fund public schools and a Superior Court attempting to ensure compliance.

We have a comprehensive, research-based report detailing specific steps the state can take to comply.

We have classrooms jammed with upwards of 40 students in the middle of a pandemic, an unprecedented wave of teacher resignations, and children climbing over wooden pallets to stay out of flood water in their crumbling school buildings.

And the leaders of the legislature’s reaction? Let’s get rid of the judge.

Moore and Berger’s claim is that North Carolina’s Constitution does not allow the courts to make funding decisions and that crossing that line would amount to a constitutional crisis.

The T.R.U.E. constitutional crisis is their unwillingness to provide North Carolina’s children with a sound basic education, and this crisis has gone unaddressed for far too long.




Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools must allow investigation of cancer cases at its Smith facility

This evening I spoke at the CMS board meeting to urge district leaders to allow outside investigation of the unusual cancer cases among Smith staff in order to determine whether those illnesses were caused by the facility.  

Among those cases are retired CMS principal (and 2004 district principal of the year) Ynez Olshausen who is currently battling a rare form of cancer, a colleague of mine who had a basal cell carcinoma on her eyelid in her 30s that is far more typical of people over age 70, and multiple individuals who died of cancer at young ages.

CMS needs to get to the bottom of what happened to them.

Over the past few years there have been rumors about a troubling pattern of people who worked at CMS’s Smith facility getting sick. Earlier this year it was reported that the district was closing the building due to widespread health concerns.

What hadn’t been disclosed until recently were the identities of any of those affected. That has now changed since retired CMS Principal Ynez Olshausen revealed she is battling cancer.

I had the absolute privilege of working under Ynez Olshausen’s leadership for about a decade, first at Smith Academy of International Languages and then at Waddell until her retirement. Our library at Waddell and now at SAIL is named in her honor.

Ms. Olshausen built a magnet program that became a national model for language immersion and was named district-wide principal of the year in 2004. One of the things I appreciated about her leadership the most was that she saw each of her employees and students first as people who deserved to be valued for their gifts and supported when they needed it. Not as cogs in a machine but as humans.

CMS is a huge machine, and in large organizations like ours there’s a tendency for the focus to be on numbers in spreadsheets rather than on actual people.

It can be far too easy to forget that our district is made up of individuals who have stories and families and lives.

Ynez Olshausen and the other Smith staff who have been diagnosed with a variety of illnesses deserve a thorough and transparent investigation into any possible connection between the years they spent working in the Smith facility and their medical conditions.

Let’s accept the offer of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to investigate a potential link between cancer diagnoses and the Smith facility, an offer which CMS has reportedly declined.

We need to handle this situation not by sweeping the problem under the rug, but by seeing our current and former Smith employees as people who need our support and by working hard to get to the bottom of what happened to them.

NCDHHS Secretary says Union County Board of Education may face legal action if it doesn’t quarantine individuals exposed to COVID

North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen has requested that the Union County Board of Education rescind its recent motion eliminating COVID quarantine measures for most students and staff, noting that if Union County doesn’t take the step by 5 pm on Friday, September 17, it may face legal action.

First reported by WSOC’s Genevieve Curtis, Dr. Cohen’s letter notes that Union County’s 7-day case average for COVID is “more then five times above the CDC’s threshold for high level of transmission” and cautions that the board’s failure to adhere to state quarantine guidelines “places students, teachers, and staff, as well as those living in their households and communities, at significant risk of being infected with COVID-19.”

You can read Cohen’s letter in its entirety below: