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Cumberland County school officials and legislators strategize on combating ‘attack’ on public education


Sen. Val Applewhite did not mince words Friday as she spoke to Cumberland County school officials, Board of Education members and fellow legislators. 

“Public education, in my opinion, is just under attack,” she said. “We can come to these meetings and talk about what you want, but from my perspective as a freshman senator, the money is not coming to public education. I think we’re going to have to let that settle in and figure out, how do we restructure ourselves?”

Applewhite’s entreaty came during a noon meeting at E.E. Smith High School in Fayetteville, where state legislators and school officials gathered to discuss the county school system’s legislative priorities ahead of the N.C. General Assembly’s short session beginning next month. In addition to Applewhite (D-Dist. 19), Reps. Diane Wheatley (R-Dist. 43), Charles Smith (D-Dist. 44), Marvin Lucas (D-Dist. 42) and Frances Vinell Jackson (D-Dist. 45) and school board members Susan Williams, Alicia Chisolm, Donna Vann, Jacquelyn Brown and Chairwoman Deanna Jones attended Friday’s meeting.

In opening remarks, Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Dr. Marvin Connelly Jr. highlighted the following legislative priorities for the school system:

  • Improvements to teacher pay.

  • Streamlining the teacher licensure process.

  • Refining the school performance grade system used by the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI). 

  • Guaranteeing school breakfasts and lunches for the 633 children attending the virtual Cumberland Academy.

  • Investments to address the GenX contamination of water supply in the Gray’s Creek area.

  • The full funding of the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan.

  • Addressing the impact of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship school voucher program on public schools. 

Ramifications of private school vouchers

Many of those present at Friday’s meeting described negative impacts they believe the N.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has had on Cumberland County public schools. 

The Opportunity Scholarship program was first enacted in 2013 and uses taxpayer money to fund the cost of tuition for families who wish to send their children to private schools, CityView previously reported. The amount of the vouchers depends on family income, with lower-income families receiving larger vouchers, and range from $3,000 to $7,000. As of Jan. 23, 32,341 North Carolinians participated in the program for a total of $150.1 million, with Cumberland County receiving the most vouchers in the state. That represents 2,552 students and $11.9 million in money, CityView reported.

“For the year 2023-2024, Cumberland County students were allocated $11,920,228 in public funds for Opportunity Scholarships, the highest in the state of North Carolina,” Connelly said. “Let’s be clear — we support families having options to choose the best educational option for their children. However, based on the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program, it is projected Cumberland County schools will see a 5% decline in state funding.” 

That decline adds up to $17,174,224 taken from public schools in Cumberland County, Connelly noted. 

“When individual students leave our system, our operational costs do not go down,” he said. “A 5% cut in state funding will significantly impact our educational offerings, and it is crucial that we find a balance that supports all students’ needs without compromising the quality of public education in Cumberland County.” 

Proponents of the program believe it offers parents important agency in choosing where their children will be educated, while critics argue the program does not have sufficient oversight, takes money from public schools and largely only benefits those who would already attend private school.

Connelly’s remarks came three days after Gov. Roy Cooper visited E.E. Smith and called for the state to stop the program until public schools received sufficient funding.

Smith, Jackson, Applewhite and Lucas each appeared to agree with Connelly, individually noting concerns about the program’s potential drain on public school funding. Wheatley, the sole lawmaker present to vote for the state budget, which expanded the Opportunity Scholarship program by $250 million through 2025, did not comment on Connelly’s concerns at the meeting. 

Connelly told legislators he was especially worried about recent changes to the program that eliminate a requirement for participants to have previously attended a public school and a cap on the salaries of participants’ parents, as well as the potential for North Carolina tax dollars to go to out-of-state companies that might own private schools receiving the vouchers. 

In response to a later remark from Applewhite, Connelly gave a grim predictor for the future of the county’s schools.

“I pray that I’m wrong, but I believe that this Opportunity Scholarship situation has the potential to take us both to the early ’60s and resegregate schools in North Carolina,” he said. “That’s just my opinion.”

Applewhite and Jackson told Connelly they agreed.

“I think it would be interesting for North Carolina to look at who applies or who seeks these Opportunity Scholarships and what percentage of those families were already sending their kids to private schools,” Smith said. 

Connelly added that he was concerned by some private schools not serving children with disabilities or with individual education plans. 

“If you are going to receive public tax dollars, you ought to be willing and obligated to serve all children and not be able to be selective on the demographic of children that you serve,” he said. “Here in Cumberland County, we serve all children, whatever their needs.”

Whereas public schools are mandated under federal law to provide a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities, not all private schools are required to support children with disabilities or who need individualized education plans (IEPs). For example, Berean Baptist Academy in Fayetteville says it does not offer programs for students with certain learning disabilities and “acceptance would be determined on a case-by-case basis,” according to its 2022 policy handbook.

Connelly said he, above all, wants private schools to be held to the same standards as public schools if they are benefiting from the vouchers. 

“If they’ll have public tax dollars, they should be held to the same standards,” he said. “Report to the state on their achievements. Report to the state on their accountability measures.” 

Streamlining licensure

Another item the meeting’s attendees discussed at length was the process for acquiring a teaching license in North Carolina. Jackson said that, as a teacher, she was aware of many educators who have been working in the state but have not been able to meet state requirements to pass required tests for their full license.

Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Ruben Reyes told legislators that the system regularly faces challenges with staff wanting to acquire licensure. 

“We have several teachers in our district who, because they are go-getters and they actually put forth the extra effort, they complete their education program in two years, which means they’re not able to get what we call the ‘RL form’ — the residency licensure form — completed,” Reyes said. “That means they’ve only completed two years of their residency, which means they’re not eligible for their limited license.” 

Jackson pointed out that in situations like those, teachers often face lower pay grades than they are technically qualified for because they don’t have their full license.

“One of the things that we’ve requested here is to change the language within that particular statute that would remove that three-year service requirement and say any teacher who has completed their residency program, regardless of the number of years, should be able to qualify for a limited license, which would remove that testing barrier for all teachers in the state,” Reyes said.

Reyes also noted a backlog at the Dept. of Public Instruction that has impacted the system’s ability to quickly license teachers. 

“I think the two primary issues probably are staffing and technology,” he said. 

Reyes said as of Friday morning, he was awaiting results of 114 licensure requests from DPI, 33 of which had been submitted before Christmas and 40 which had been submitted in January.

“We have made, again, our best-case guess as to where those teachers should be paid, but as of right now, we get something called an audit exception saying that DPI will not certify their salary and we may have to pay that out of local money,” he said. “It does impact your sound financial status because if DPI does not certify that salary, you have to figure out another funding source for those teachers.”

Funding frustration

Connelly asked legislators Friday for their support in recent struggles to acquire funding for capital improvement projects. 

“We have continued for the last three years to apply for the DPI Capital Improvement Grant to help us in the building of a new E.E. Smith once we determine where it will be built,” he said. “We’ve applied for that needs-based grant believing that, in a high-poverty county, we’d be able to get some of those needs-based funds, but we’ve been denied the last three years.” 

Connelly said the school system’s separate grant application for funding to consolidate Stedman Primary, Stedman, J.W. Seabrook and Sunnyside elementary schools was also denied this year.

“We feel that if anybody is needs-based, Cumberland County is,” he said. “The last three years, all around the state, people are being awarded this grant. Even some higher-income counties have received the grant. But not Cumberland. So any support you provide there would be appreciated.”

Challenges to overcome

Board of Education members Donna Vann and Susan Williams emphasized the importance of collaboration to tackle the probability of Cumberland County not receiving additional state funds.

“If we can hold on, we have the team,” Williams said. “The problem is keeping the people. How many people are we missing right now?” 

A school official told Williams the system had 126 certified staff vacancies as of earlier this week. 

“How are we going to get them?” Williams questioned. “And the thing is keeping those people that we have when you know they are burned to a crisp. I don’t know how to fix it. It burdens me every day … I’m just out of ideas besides supporting this group, and I’m going to keep supporting them.” 

Vann said it would be important for legislators to look at the bigger picture when making decisions and echoed earlier worries expressed by her colleagues about the impact of the Opportunity Scholarship program.

“These opportunity vouchers and the charter schools and all of that, when we are a Tier 1 county, those vouchers, all they are doing is sending [away] those that think that the grass is greener on the other side,” she said. 

Reporter Lexi Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@cityviewc.com or 910-423-6500.

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Cumberland County, education, vouchers, private schools, public schools, Marvin Connelly, school board, E.E. Smith High School