The Week in Raleigh: Deal Reached on Class-Size Requirements

Reps. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, (left) and Graig Meyer, D-Orange, confer on the floor of the North Carolina House of Representatives on Thursday, April 27, 2017. (Clifton Dowell | NCInsider.com)

RALEIGH — The General Assembly has given final approval to a bill designed to ensure new class-size requirements don’t put art, music and physical education specialists out of a job. The governor quickly signed the bill on Thursday.

The measure will “put a one-year delay on the class-size restrictions that have been much discussed here and in the media,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson. During that year, the General Assembly will collect information about elementary school teachers and teacher specialists.

“What this information will allow us to do is formally define them and then determine how to make their allotment work,” said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes. He said there is no formal definition for art, music, and physical education specialists under current state law, he said, which makes paying for those positions difficult.

Lawmakers in both chambers have pledged that if they need to, they will create a separate funding stream to pay for the elementary school specialists. But senators refused to go along with the House’s original proposal, a blanket rollback of the class size requirements, because they were not convinced school districts were accounting for or using teacher allotments aimed at lower class size correctly.

That funding stream will be needed, say skeptics of the bill, because the bill ratchets class-size restrictions back down in the 2018-19 school year. “HB 13 is a temporary reprieve from a no win situation,” House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said.

“While this legislation addresses immediate concerns, the failure of legislative Republicans to properly fund our schools has risked the jobs of educators and jeopardized our children’s future,” Cooper said after signing the bill. “It’s imperative that we quit kicking the can down the road.”

Many legislators said they were relieved to have a fix, albeit a temporary one. Lawmakers have faced harsh criticism from school administrators, who didn’t want to make cuts in response to the mandate, as well as parents.

“We’ve all been beat up that we’re not funding our teachers and we’re not funding our local schools,” said Rep. Jamie Boles, R-Moore.

IN OTHER BUSINESS:

Veto Overrides: The North Carolina legislature seized the initiative in a months long effort to weaken Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, overriding his veto of a Republican bill that would reduce the number of judges on the state Court of Appeals. Several hours apart, the GOP-dominated state House and Senate completed the override on Wednesday, marking the second time in a week that they succeeded in going over Cooper’s head to enact a law that takes power away from the state’s new chief executive. The approved measure means the intermediate-level court would shrink from 15 judges to 12 through attrition, preventing Cooper from filling seats being vacated by the next three retiring judges. On Tuesday, the legislature overrode Cooper’s veto of a measure that merges the state elections and ethics boards and divides the board equally between Democrats and Republicans.

Appeals Appointment: Gov. Roy Cooper appointed John Arrowood to fill a seat on the state Court of Appeals vacated the same day by Doug McCullough, a Republican who reaches the mandatory retirement age next month. The appointment of the Democrat came three days after Cooper vetoed a bill that would have decreased the size of the appeals court from 15 judges to 12, but before the veto was overridden by Republicans in the legislature to become state law. In an interview, McCullough said he retired several weeks early because he did not want his legacy to be an “impairment to the appeals court” by reducing its size.

Legal Notices: Another effort to allow local government notices and other legal items to be posted on websites instead of in North Carolina newspapers cleared the state Senate. The chamber voted to give county commissioners or town councils the option to post announcements online rather than the newspaper. Notices covered by the bill now heading to the House include items like zoning proposals, contract bids and foreclosures. Counties that post notices on their websites would charge fees for certain legal notices, with half the proceeds going to local teacher pay supplements. Similar electronic notice bills have been proposed for years. Supporters say online publication could save taxpayer money. Critics worry it could hurt small newspapers and make it harder for rural residents to access the information.

Nuisance Lawsuits: North Carolina lawmakers decided Thursday that hog and poultry operations should get added protection from lawsuits by neighbors complaining that swarms of flies and the intense stink of animal waste create a nuisance. The Republican-dominated state House gave final approval to legislation restricting how much neighbors of high-density hog and poultry barns could collect if they prove a nuisance. The measure becomes law if it is signed by Gov. Roy Cooper. “This is nothing more than common sense to me,” Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, a Republican, told a committee. The new limits would not apply to the pending litigation, but the legislation was prompted by pending federal lawsuits involving about 500 rural neighbors against Murphy-Brown LLC, the North Carolina-based hog production division of Virginia’s Smithfield Foods. They are U.S. subsidiaries of the Chinese company that is the world’s largest pork producer.

Protest Bills: Drivers who hit a protester who’s blocking the road couldn’t be sued for injuries if they “exercise due care,” under a bill that passed the state House on Thursday. The bills in response to protests in Charlotte last fall. Protesters upset about the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott blocked interstate highways and other roads in the city. N.C. Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin called the measure a “shockingly horrible and dangerous piece of legislation.” Another bill prompted by the Charlotte protests, titled “Economic Terrorism,” was voted down in a committee earlier in the week. It would have increased penalties on law-breaking protesters, including those who block roads, and required local governments to immediately clear protesters from roads.

Fired: State officials have fired the contractor hired to build a state psychiatric hospital that is two years late and years away from completion. The company that insured the $129 million project through a bond will now step in and manage completion of Broughton Hospital in Morganton. The move comes five years after the state hired Archer Western Contractors of Charlotte to build a 400,000-square-foot hospital that would add another 100 beds to the psychiatric hospital serving patients in the western part of the state. The new hospital was initially expected to open in the fall of 2014.

Flags Lowered: Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all North Carolina flags lowered to half-staff in tribute to a prison guard who died after she was attacked by an inmate. Cooper issued the order on Thursday. Flags were lowered immediately and returned to full staff at sunset on Friday. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pamela Walker said in a news release the attack happened Wednesday at the Bertie Correctional Institution in Windsor. Walker said prison medical staff and first responders couldn’t save 29-year-old Sgt. Megan Lee Callahan of Edenton, who died about an hour after the attack. An inmate who has been in the prison since 2004 on a life sentence for murder in Cumberland County is under investigation in connection with the attack.

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