Facing charter takeover, Robeson County leaders tell state to stay out

Facing charter takeover, Robeson County leaders tell state to stay out

- in Education, Top Story
Innovative School District Superintendent Eric Hall addresses more than 100 parents and community members at Southside Ashpole Elementary. (Photo: Public Schools of Robeson County)

Just days after a North Carolina official tapped a Robeson County elementary for a controversial charter takeover district, local leaders say the state isn’t welcome in Southside-Ashpole Elementary.

“The governor of North Carolina and the legislators cannot justify that, as far as I’m concerned,” Jerry Stephens, a Robeson County commissioner, told Policy Watch Tuesday. “It’ll be such a great fall-out.”

Commissioner Jerry Stephens

Members of the county’s Board of Commissioners and Board of Education unanimously approved a joint resolution Monday night opposing Southside-Ashpole’s selection for the state’s Innovative School District (ISD), which could allow charter or education management organizations—including, possibly, for-profit groups—to seize control of operations and staffing in hopes of turning around lagging test scores.

Southside-Ashpole was the last school standing Friday after ISD Superintendent Eric Hall trimmed an initial list of 48 eligible schools, chosen because they reported performance scores in the bottom five percent statewide and did not meet growth goals in at least one of the prior three years.

The proposal spurred intense opposition in many North Carolina districts once mulled for the takeover. Resistance in Robeson grew in the days and hours before Hall’s recommendation, which is scheduled to be officially heard by the State Board of Education in November.

Members of the state board aren’t expected to hold a vote on the selection until December.

“This is not the right time, this is not for us,” Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, chair of the Robeson Board of Education, said Tuesday morning.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

Tuesday’s comments mark a turnaround for Wilkins-Chavis, who told Policy Watch last month that she supported a takeover for the struggling school, which is located in a high-poverty community besieged by storm damage.

District leaders say they plan to spend more than $50 million on construction after Hurricane Matthew left extensive damage to seven Robeson schools and flooded the district’s central office in 2016.

Wilkins-Chavis said state leaders were not considering the district’s hardships when they chose Southside-Ashpole for the ISD.

“It’s like if your husband leaves you and someone says, ‘Well, your husband’s gone so we’re going to take your children too,’” said Wilkins-Chavis. “You’re making a bad situation worse.”

State law allows for officials to take over up to five schools for the ISD. And while initial plans suggested Hall would recommend two schools for the district in the coming year, his office wrapped-up its work last week with just one expected proposal for the state board.

If state board board members ultimately choose Southside-Ashpole for the ISD, state law offers school leaders the choice of accepting takeover or closing.

But leaders in Robeson say they hope this week’s resolution will steer state officials elsewhere, which may be unlikely given that all other prospective schools have been notified that they will not be considered for the ISD in 2018-2019.

Hall indicated to Policy Watch Tuesday that this week’s joint resolution in Robeson was a surprise to him. Hall said he planned to speak at Monday’s meeting, but was told by county leaders that they preferred to put off his presentation until November.

Nevertheless, Hall said he does not expect the resolution will impact his recommendation to the state Board of Education, which was developed after weeks of state meetings with lagging districts.

“First and foremost, the data has been the process,” said Hall. “For me, this is not about politics. It’s about students.”

Hall added that the three North Carolina districts that landed on the ISD shortlist with Robeson—Durham Public Schools, Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools and Northampton County Schools—presented plans to his office for improvements at lagging schools.

“We are yet to see what that plan would look like in Robeson County to improve outcomes in Southside-Ashpole Elementary,” said Hall.

But Robeson school chiefs said Tuesday that they will send a plan for corrections at Southside-Ashpole along with their resolution this week. It was unclear Tuesday whether that plan had already been implemented or was in the works for the Public Schools of Robeson County, which is considered a low-performing district by the state because more than half of the rural district’s schools are judged low-performing.

Southside-Ashpole earned “F” scores in reading and math and did not meet growth expectations in 2016-2017, according to state data, although, like many of those schools eyed for the takeover district, it’s located in a high-poverty community.

Roughly 30 percent of the county’s population is considered impoverished, according to Census data. Children from low-income families tend to lag their more affluent peers in academic performance.

A day after Monday’s joint resolution, Wilkins-Chavis said she spoke with Hall. She said the ISD superintendent suggested Robeson leaders would have little choice if the state board ultimately goes along with his recommendation to launch the ISD with Southside-Ashpole.

Stephens, meanwhile, blamed Robeson’s limited tax base and insufficient state funding for the school’s struggles. North Carolina’s per-pupil spending was expected to rank a lowly 43rd in the nation this year, according to one national benchmark.

“For somebody private to come in who’s unfamiliar with the board, the community, the area, to say they can do a better job, that’s just beyond me,” said Stephens. “It sounds like a business matter, not a person matter. This is a person matter, we’ve got our children down here.”

Stephens added that he hopes Monday’s joint resolution will command the attention of state leaders.

“I’m hoping that Mr. Hall would not want to come into an environment that’s not welcoming,” he said. “Whether they force it upon us or not, they won’t be welcome. That’s not going to be good for the students.”

State supporters of the takeover model have said they expected some local pushback from the ISD, which passed last year with the support of prominent school choice backers, as well as former Gov. Pat McCrory and most Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly. It passed despite middling results in states like Tennessee and Louisiana.

Yet ISD proponents say struggling schools like Southside-Ashpole, many of them situated in predominantly minority areas, have long been in need of a change. Rep. Cecil Brockman, a High Point Democrat who co-sponsored last year’s bill, told Policy Watch that 66 percent of the state’s African American students are considered to be failing or not performing at grade level.

“If that were the case for 66 percent of all of our students, we’d be talking about closing every school,” said Brockman. “It’s a crisis.”

But the reaction from local districts has been particularly bristling, with some threatening to close schools or fight state leaders in court.

Ultimately, Commissioner Stephens says he thinks Southside-Ashpole was chosen not because it was one of the lowest-performing schools, but because protests were so loud in other communities.

“That doesn’t seem fair,” says Stephens. “It seems like they’re assuming we don’t have enough political clout to raise a defense. That’s the way it seems to me.”