The UNC system needs to prove it still is the university of the people

Pam Kelley’s profile Sunday of John Fennebresque, the chairman of the system’s Board of Governors, gave me some insight into the system’s new leadership. Pam, also a longtime resident of North Carolina and the spouse of a professor, was the best person anywhere to write the profile. I’m glad she and The Charlotte Observer made the time to give N.C. residents a look at the system’s future.

In the profile, Fennebresque talks about replying to dozens of emails after the board’s decision to replace UNC system President Tom Ross. He also talks about receiving hate mail.

I wrote Fennebresque, and also every other member of the Board of Governors, in February about the closing of three centers at universities around the state. I received one perfunctory reply, not from Fennebresque.

If the UNC system plans to remain a university of the people, the board is going to need to work harder at proving it is not motivated by politics and that it can respond to the concerns of all the people of North Carolina. The current board members might not care one whit about my commitment to stay in North Carolina, nor my family’s future in this state. But to write off and ignore a large group of people like me will damage the university. The system needs to prove it still is the university of the people.

I encourage others who wrote Fennebresque and other board members to share their letters publicly and to say whether they received a response. Here’s my letter from February:

As a resident of North Carolina for almost 30 years, I’m registering my dismay at recommendations to close the University of North Carolina’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. I’d also like to register my dismay at plans to shut down the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University and calls for limiting the mission of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

Poverty center
In addition to being a longtime resident of North Carolina because I believed in its commitment to education, I’m also a veteran journalist who has watched the dwindling of information about North Carolina as a whole. Traditional for-profit news organizations in the state depend on declining advertising revenue. They now have limited resources and are structurally unable to cover stories that do not appeal to populations without money to spend. That flaw in the marketplace leaves a hole in the state’s information ecosystem that is partially filled by the poverty center. The center’s mission and funding should increase, not decrease, at a time when poverty and lack of opportunity remain stubborn problems that the state needs to address.
Criticisms of the center include ad hominem attacks on Gene Nichol, claiming he and the center are partisan. Please look directly at his actions and words, and the products of the poverty center at its website, rather than at the partisan attacks calling him partisan. If, at times, his words have felt too directly aimed at current legislative leadership, Perhaps that issue is separate from a wholesale dismantling of a valuable center that serves a useful educational and civic information function.
In addition, the center has been criticized for hosting a conference on poverty in which some groups apparently felt excluded. Please look yourselves at the invitation list for that conference here – http://bit.ly/1EnEEBi – and weigh whether this list was inappropriate for its purpose. The list included the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center as well as mostly academic representatives. It appears partly that the partisan attacks on the center are designed to shut out a nonprofit center whose mission includes economic justice from future discussions with academics. I’d like you to consider the impact on free speech and philanthropy for the state if the board acquiesces to such attacks.

N.C. Central’s Institute for Civic Engagement
Again, as commercial sources for information about civic engagement dwindle, a center whose mission seems to be encouraging people to vote and be involved in civic life of our state is crucial. Its role and funding should be increased, not decreased.

UNC Center for Civil Rights
Criticism of this center focuses on its advocacy role in certain lawsuits. It’s particularly hypocritical that the criticism comes from a private lawyer on your board as well as from a University of Tennessee law professor and prolific blogger (Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit). Reynolds, in particular, works at a law school in a competing state which has long offered its own legal clinics that give law students practical experience. His desire to limit the UNC Law School’s ability to do the same, via his claim that UNC was “whoring out,” (link: http://bit.ly/1Ao8rrZ ) is not only offensive but also deeply hypocritical – and transparent.
By law, the center represents people who could not afford lawyers of their own. The state of North Carolina has recently been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits that do not represent my will as a state taxpayer – against equal marriage, against voting access and even soon perhaps against municipal broadband. To begrudge poor people, often people of color, access to legal representation is criminal. It creates a society in which justice only goes to those who can afford it. I’m not a fan of state money being spent on lawyers instead of solutions to problems, but sometimes the only access to fair treatment is through the courts. The center for civil rights helps level the playing field.

Association with UNC
These centers get outside funding for much of their work, but their associations with the UNC system enable them to involve students in their activities, providing strong educational value. A direct look at the Center on Poverty’s website – through your own eyes, not filtered by partisan pundits – can show you how the center serves the state by contributing to the education of new leaders as well as plugging holes in civic information gaps. The Center for Civil Right’s role in training young lawyers through practical experience, while serving poor people who cannot afford private lawyers, is a double benefit to North Carolina. Clearly, at least one representative of a law school in a competing state (Glenn Reynolds) would be happy for UNC to dismantle practical learning opportunities for young lawyers. N.C. Central’s advocacy of voting is crucial to the future of our democracy, and an educational institution is an appropriate place to teach civic responsibility.

The least of these
As you weigh your decisions, please think of Bill Friday and Dean Smith. In particular, please remember Kristen Smith’s speech about her father where she said he was inspired by the Gospel of Matthew, and the admonition to serve “the least of these.” Know that many longtime taxpayers like me are glad to fund such centers – even in small amounts by simply providing access to university facilities for meetings and providing students access to special projects. I am proud to have these centers associated with UNC campuses, and my pride in North Carolina’s commitment to education has kept me as a longtime resident and taxpayer. That pride extends throughout my family.

Thank you for your time.

Andria Krewson

Todd Chasteen is the wrong nominee for the N.C. Board of Education

Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende, from a video she made specifically for the fight in Watauga County to preserve access to her book.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s latest nominee for the N.C. Board of Education, J. Todd Chasteen of Samaritan’s Purse, fought to ban a book from honors English classes at Watauga High School in 2014.

Nominees for the board go through the N.C. General Assembly, and given its track record, it’s likely Chasteen’s nomination could go through. But it’s another example of the many troubling moves that hand leadership in North Carolina to extremists that don’t represent the values of many of the people in the state. The General Assembly should think twice before letting this nomination sail through.

Chasteen’s background is in nonprofit logistics and law, and his wife, Kim, runs a private, Christian K-8 school, Grace Academy. There’s some evidence that Todd Chasteen’s effort to ban Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits” was part of a larger effort to fight the book encouraged by Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse.

Allende wrote a letter to the local school board defending the book and made a strong video explaining its context and the dangers of censorship (screenshot above). The local board eventually voted 3-2 to deny the challenge. But before the resolution, the controversy hit Fox News and Media Matters and drew in the ACLU.

None of this likely matters enough to keep the N.C. General Assembly from approving Chasteen’s nomination to the N.C. Board of Education, which approves textbooks, approves or denies charter school applications, and administers the “free public school system” as spelled out in North Carolina’s Constitution.  The General Assembly sat on nominations for the board from former Gov. Bev Perdue for two years, giving McCrory more appointments instead. This latest nomination for a voice representing Samaritan’s Purse probably feels like just another routine step to increase far-right, extremist voices on a board often overlooked by most people in the state.

But here are other factors that should concern N.C. residents about Chasteen’s nomination and McCrory’s history with the state school board:

  • McCrory’s nominations fail to reflect the background of many of the consumers of public schools in North Carolina. He’s made seven nominations: four white men, two white women, one Native American woman. Chasteen’s nomination is the fifth white male.
  • McCrory’s nominations shortchange one of the two largest systems in the state, Charlotte-Mecklenburg. One member out of 13 voting members*, Eric Davis, is from Charlotte and is a recent at-large appointee. Chasteen’s nomination is for the northwest district, recently represented by Greg Alcorn, a native of Rowan County. Alcorn has somehow been moved to the southwest district representing Charlotte, through some kind of redrawing of districts effective April 1, 2015.
  • Of McCrory’s recent nominations, some don’t have strong public education backgrounds, just like Chasteen, who again comes from a private, religious, nonprofit logistics and law background. Alcorn has a marketing/logistics/business background, skills valuable on the board in balance. But those kinds of backgrounds are squeezing out members who can represent the consumers of our state’s free public classrooms.

McCrory and the General Assembly should take another crack at representing the biggest consumers of the state’s schools. The Charlotte area has educators and voices who could be a better balance on the board. Here are three names I found just digging around through media reports and social media. I don’t know them personally, and I have no idea they’d be interested, but their backgrounds are stronger than Chasteen’s for representing public school consumers. If I can find three easily, surely McCrory and the General Assembly can do a better job finding a voice that would provide better balance to the N.C. Board of Education.

  • Beatrice Thompson, a TV and radio personality in the Charlotte area. She has covered education as a reporter and is in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Women’s Hall of Fame.
  • Cheryl Turner, director of Sugar Creek Charter School and a member of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board until June 2015. She said in 2014 that she planned to step down from that role, but she’s still listed on the board’s website. Her school got written up by the Carolina Journal in 2010 as an example of a strong charter school.
  • James E. Ford, now serving in an advisory capacity to the Board of Education because of his selection as North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year in 2014.

Chasteen, McCrory’s latest nominee, may be a shoe-in, and the redrawing of board of education district lines effective April 1 may be a signal that his appointment has been in the works for awhile. His involvement in trying to keep a book away from other students should be enough to disqualify him from the N.C. Board of Education. Taken in the context of McCrory’s nominees over time, it’s clear that his nomination is just another step stifling the voices of many consumers of public schools.

* I don’t know if Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson is a voting member; I didn’t include her in the 13 voting members.

Further reading:
The Progressive Pulse has a series of profiles of state school board members.

N.C. bill changing neighborhood protest petitions moves on to Senate Rules Committee

Backstage Vintage and Tommy's Pub.

Backstage Vintage and Tommy’s Pub in Charlotte may get evicted because of a rezoning.

House Bill 201, which passed the N.C. House, went on to the N.C. Senate where it appears to be assigned to the rules committee. Maybe it’ll never emerge, maybe it’ll sit there until July 3, to emerge when nobody’s watching.

It gives developers an easier path to rezoning and takes away neighbors’ power.

For the owners of Backstage Vintage and Tommy’s Pub in Charlotte, hyper-growth of apartments and other development in Charlotte is a real thing, pushing them out or into higher rents. Neighborhood protest petitions give neighbors a chance to speak up to preserve the kinds of things that made neighborhoods unique.

You can keep an eye on the status of the bill at the General Assembly’s site.

You can find phone numbers of senators to contact at Save North Carolina’s Protest Petition. And here’s more background on the bill that would weaken neighbors’ voices in rezonings.

And if you want to weigh in on the rezoning in Charlotte affecting Tommy’s Pub, here’s a direct link to the rezoning application at rezoning.org. There’s at least one good old willow oak that would be nice to preserve, but there’s also ground contamination from an old gas station next to Tommy’s.

Using money from public notice advertising as a digital dividend to help bridge the digital divide

Google Fiber, coming to Charlotte soon, taken March 20, 2015, at the Best Minds conference at Queens University. Photo by Scott E. Lundgren, @scottelundgren

Google Fiber, coming to Charlotte soon, taken March 20, 2015, at the Best Minds conference at Queens University. Photo by Scott E. Lundgren, @scottelundgren

People from Pew Research, Google Fiber, and the Charlotte community met on a Friday night at Queens University in Charlotte to talk about the digital divide and the potential transformation from Google Fiber.

I heard some of the talk because Scott Lundgren streamed it on Meerkat. I could listen in because I have broadband access at home.

Not everyone in Charlotte does. The city has pockets where broadband penetration is only 40%.

One tiny mention during the Q&A after the formal presentations at Queens intrigued me – the idea of  a “digital dividend.” Migration to digital tools can save money for businesses and government, and that dividend could be used to help bridge the digital divide.

Try applying that idea to a longstanding digital issue affecting N.C. businesses and governments – required public notices that historically have run in selected newspapers. Local governments want to stop spending the money to advertise public notices in newspapers and simply post the notices on their own sites. Newspapers and the N.C. Press Association propose a compromise this year, in which governments get a 15% discount for repeat advertising and the notices get posted online for free. They rightly argue that most newspaper sites generate more traffic than government websites. They also have at least one lobbyist in Raleigh as well as their own editorial pages to share the benefits of their compromise.

But they’re not the only sites delivering information. Choosing who gets the government contract for advertising public notes can be a political game, and in some small towns, that contract has had the power to kill small news organizations and feed the growth of others. It falls into the “picking winners and losers” category of state and local government law.

So let’s return to that concept of a digital dividend. What if the money currently going to public notice advertising in print was considered a potential digital dividend designated specifically for helping bridge the digital divide?

Use that money to make the notices more accessible to everyone. (And yes, that means everyone, regardless of political leanings, association membership, or ability to fund lobbyists in Raleigh.)

That money could go to one or more of these things:

  • local library support for computers, wi-fi, broadband and community outreach so people can access information online.
  • internal local government work to make the public notices more useful, granular, searchable by topic, and available to all through something like a simple RSS feed. (The state of Utah does this, with a site run by the state archives. I bet others do too.)  As they stand now, the notices are unstructured text blobs, unsearchable on a granular level, like for company names, specific addresses, or type of notice.
  • nonprofits specifically working on bridging the digital divide, like Pangaea in Polk and Rutherford counties, which is a 501(c)3 building out broadband. It has received Facebook grants to help broaden digital access in its rural area.
  • outreach work to lawyers and others who also must post certain kinds of notices but do so behind paywalls. Convene some meetings to discuss how to open that information to all.
  • a fund for unconnected communities in Charlotte and Raleigh, to help pay the $300 initial fee for Google Fiber.
  • the local government’s general fund, to help keep property taxes from rising (yes, this bullet point acknowledges political realities. It also helps longtime property owners on small fixed incomes as well as the big property owners. It doesn’t directly help the many newcomers and millennials who are renting, and it does nothing to help bridge the divide.)

Admittedly, the public-notice advertising money isn’t huge compared to the millions that the N.C. General Assembly manages. A 2009 survey by the N.C. League of Municipalities mentioned price tags of $10,500 for Monroe and $42,000 for Charlotte. But it adds up. A 2011 poll by the Associated Press came up with an estimate that local governments in North Carolina alone spent about $6 million in 2010 on legal ads and public notices.

And admittedly, any solution is complicated by differing media circumstances in each N.C. town. If you want to reach people in Davidson or Cornelius, Davidson News or Cornelius News are good bets, but a local paper in Fayetteville might have bigger reach today than a Fayetteville blogger. RSS feeds that reach any site are the best future-proofed solution to that problem.

This issue has been cussed and discussed in Raleigh and in local governments for at least four years now. It’s a bit arcane, not sexy, so proposed solutions generally reflect what Raleigh lobbyists or a few informed legislators want. But the Queens University discussion stemming from Google Fiber’s arrival raised the idea of a digital dividend. Let’s start thinking how that could work for something concrete like government’s public notices.

Making rezonings in North Carolina and Charlotte easier and making neighbors’ voices weaker

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Charlotte residents in neighborhoods that are facing increasing development pressure should speak up to their legislators about House Bill 201. It eliminates the ability for neighbors to file protest petitions against rezonings.

The current state law on protest petitions gives immediate neighbors some leverage when a piece of land is up for rezoning. Five percent of neighbors next to a project can sign a petition that triggers a rule requiring 75% of the city council to approve a rezoning.

In reality, these petitions often don’t stop development, but they give neighbors negotiating room for things like green buffers, fences or walls and input on design things like height and drive-through windows.

Close-in neighborhoods in Charlotte are having a bit of a redevelopment moment, with denser apartments popping up, especially where walk scores are high. So the proposed repeal is important to NoDa, Villa Heights, Plaza Midwood, Dilworth, Elizabeth, South End and Myers Park. The repeal, however, affects the whole state and affects those in farther-out suburbs too.

It’s easy to sign an online petition these days, but organizing a protest petition for a rezoning remains hard, with detailed rules about who qualifies as a neighbor and hard-copy signatures necessary. A recent rezoning request in NoDa illustrated the issue, with nearly 1,500 people signing an online petition to “Save the Chop Shop,” but with zerozero – people showing up at a public hearing to speak against the rezoning.

Developers and some legislators claim the current rules allow neighbors to hold property owners hostage, and that’s far from the truth. The current rules simply give immediate neighbors some leverage, protecting neighborhoods from overheated redevelopment that can destroy the very character that made the neighborhoods attractive.

If you want to preserve your ability to influence development right next to your home, find your state representative and give them a call or email about House Bill 201.

House Bill 13 tries to make healthier N.C. schools but raises the hurdles for children getting in to schools

A new school health bill coming out of the General Assembly in Raleigh would require all new students in N.C. public schools to get a health assessment. Current law only requires kindergarten students to have the assessment, which includes a record of vaccinations.

On the surface, the goal of making sure all N.C. students are healthy is a civic good, hard to oppose. However, House Bill 13 fails to provide more funding to county health departments or schools to support parents new to North Carolina, navigating a confusing and overburdened health care system.

Imagine moving to North Carolina with three or four children and having to get appointments with a local doctor to fill out yet another form amid the stack of new-school paperwork and moving chores. Imagine that school nurses serve an average of 1,177 students each, which is 57 percent more students than the federal recommended ratio of 1 nurse per 750 students. Imagine that you have 30 days to comply before your kids are kicked out of school. Imagine that it can take several months to get appointments once you find a doctor or locate the county health department (PDF from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools). And imagine that you make too much money to qualify for Medicaid or the N.C. Health Choice program to help pay for the exams.

That’s not a thought exercise. That’s the reality in North Carolina. Counties like Mecklenburg have made a local funding commitment to more school nurses, but other counties don’t necessarily have the funds to supplement the funding they get from the state.

Private schools and home schools are exempt from the new requirements in the bill.

Without accompanying funding to support more certified school nurses or to pay for more support from county health departments, the new bill just raises the hurdles faced by families who want their children to get a sound basic education in North Carolina.

The bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston (a border county). The bill, House Bill 13, has a fiscal note attached estimating any increased costs to the state, specifically public health departments. It says “any impact to local health departments would be negligible.” (PDF of the fiscal note). For counties like Mecklenburg with a large influx of newcomers, that estimate doesn’t represent reality.

The bill has passed out of the House Committee on K-12 Education. Other sponsors include Rep. Bert Jones, R-Caswell, a dentist; Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus; and Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Polk (another border county). You can follow the bill’s progress here.

As it stands, the bill is an unfunded mandate for county health departments, especially those with large influxes of newcomers. Those aren’t necessarily just big counties like Mecklenburg. The N.C. governor recently touted a new chicken processing plant for Robeson County (a border county), which had a child poverty rate of 47.8 percent in 2012. Some of those new chicken-plant workers will likely come from out of state, with children who will need help staying healthy and getting access to education. Increasing the hurdles they face for school without increasing the funding to help them get health care is wrong.

Thundering voices in North Carolina, including Susan Ladd of Greensboro

Sunday papers in North Carolina had lots of strong thundering voices today, and John Robinson has his good Sunday roundup, including stories about open government to mark Sunshine Week. One fact stands out: It’s been 19 months since the Associated Press requested records of emails from N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory’s first public safety secretary. The department’s nine public information officers just don’t have the time to get to all of the public information requests.

But one N.C. columnist worth noting goes softer this week: Susan Ladd of Greensboro marks the departure of the ACC basketball tournament from Greensboro for a few years. She’s even kind to the Fighting Irish.

Ladd’s now the lead columnist for the newspaper in the middle of this big state, and she’s willing to speak her mind on justice and fairness, including minority and women’s rights. She lays it out in her introductory column from March 8 .

She’s already had the expected blowback in letters to the editor and opposing columns, including one from Charles Davenport questioning her credentials.

Put me firmly in the camp that is glad to hear Ladd’s opinionated, strong voice on justice and fairness.

Given an overall lack of women’s voices on the opinion pages of traditional media in North Carolina,  I’m happy to see her new title of lead columnist and hear her independent voice.