Category Archives: Politics

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.

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.

The FCC releases its argument supporting municipal broadband in North Carolina

Map of broadband availability in and around Wilson, N.C., from the FCC's ruling pre-empting state law limiting its growth.

Broadband availability in and around Wilson, N.C., from the FCC’s ruling pre-empting state law limiting its growth.


Here it is: 116 pages in PDF.
fccmunibroadband

Here’s the FCC’s full page with statements from all FCC commissioners on the issue.

Here’s the Times Free Press in Tennessee on their part of the issue.

Here’s Multichannel News on what happens next for muni broadband.

Short version: North Carolina’s law limiting town broadband expansion is bad law (it was House Bill 129 from 2011).

And arguments that criticize existing muni broadband in Davidson, Morganton, and Salisbury as examples of the dangers of muni broadband are hogwash. See pages 34-36 in the PDF.

Supporting N.C. journalism through public notices and legal ads

So far, 15 bills mentioning the word “newspaper” have appeared in the N.C. General Assembly this session. They range from bills honoring the Rev. Billy Graham to bills allowing cities and counties to publish public notices digitally.

Legal advertisements and public notices, required by law, have been a little-noticed subsidy of local newspapers since Ben Franklin’s time. In the last few years, talk has increased about eliminating the requirement of placing some public notices in newspapers because of the cost to government and the dwindling reach of newspapers. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute wrote a good roundup about legal notices a year ago. I wrote about legislative bills affecting legal notices in North Carolina in 2011.

Some N.C. towns have already eliminated required print legal ads. This year, more towns (Greensboro, Morrisville, High Point) and counties could join them. With the changing face of journalism, including new digital startups, enhanced TV station websites and pay models at established media outlets, North Carolina should rethink how we write laws that require public notices. Our government’s goals should be leveling the playing field, supporting strong independent reporting regardless of the source, and providing government transparency about how legal ads and public notices get placed. The original intent of the ads – notifying people efficiently about government actions that affect their jobs and lives – must remain a key goal. Government websites cannot reach that goal alone.

The word “newspaper” appears 310 times in North Carolina’s general statutes. Rules requiring public notices grew organically over time, lack uniformity and tend to favor established newspapers. Sometimes, another news organization has broader reach, more reporting resources or more local reader engagement. In many cases, the rules allow non-elected officials to choose winners from among news sources, possibly fostering a spoil system that erodes trust.

The North Carolina Press Association keeps its eye on legislation affecting newspapers, and it has opened its doors to new journalism startups including the nonprofit Carolina Public Press in Asheville and the Raleigh Public Record. It must consider its own members’ interests and will likely lobby for rules that continue existing subsidies through legal notices to newspapers, especially newspapers of a certain size. While that support could erode this year, that issue shouldn’t be the only question on the table. Figuring out how to foster the growth of new news startups should also be a consideration in the General Assembly.

Federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission are studying how to preserve journalism as old business models fail. Journalism school deans from across the country, including the University of North Carolina’s Susan King, have written a statement urging the IRS to quickly approve nonprofit status for emerging news sites as a way to foster innovation in journalism.

At the same time, our N.C. General Assembly members should bring independent, thoughtful approaches to encouraging quality, local reporting, from for-profits and nonprofits.

Steven Waldman, writing in a special report, “The Information Needs of Communities,” for the FCC in 2011, made one suggestion:

“One possible solution that would benefit all parties would be for governments to save money by hosting public notices on their own websites and paying a lesser amount to run banner ads on other sites about the notices and linking back to the government site. The municipality would be able to spread information about the public notices to a broader range of audiences than they would by just publishing them in a particular newspaper. They would generate more traffic for their own websites, provide ad revenue for local news operations and advance the cause of government transparency.”

Posting public notices and legal ads on town and county websites furthers open government. But to reach people in our fragmented information age, using multiple methods (including print for some areas), at lower costs, seems like the right solution. Our new laws should be fair, encourage innovation and provide flexibility as technology and news sources change.

Here are some samples of the words in existing bills filed this legislative session in the N.C. General Assembly:

“The County shall advertise a notice for interested parties to submit qualifications in such form as the County may require for possible selection as the private developer or private developers in the public‑private project in a newspaper having general circulation within the County.”

“Advertise the sale by publication in a newspaper having general circulation in the county in which the property is situated. [AND] Make the following information about the property being sold available to the public both on its Web site and by mail. …”

“…sealed bids shall be solicited by advertisement in a newspaper widely distributed in this State or through electronic means, or both, as determined by the Secretary to be most advantageous… .”

“The secretary‑treasurer shall annually, at a time and in a law magazine or daily newspaper to be prescribed by the Council, publish an account of the financial transactions of the Council in a form to be prescribed by it.”

“The Charter Board shall distribute information announcing the availability of the charter school process described in this Part to each local school administrative unit and public postsecondary educational institution and, through press releases, to each major newspaper in the State. … ”

Disclaimers: I am not employed or paid by any of the news organizations in this post. I’m a former employee of the Charlotte Observer, and I’m working on a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina in digital communications. These words are my own.