Michael Dunsmore, superintendent of Wayne County Public Schools, has one question for members of the State Board of Education as they mull a bitterly controversial proposal to seize control of a struggling Goldsboro elementary .
“If they vote Thursday to take my school over and Friday we close it, what do they do?” Dunsmore said Wednesday.
Under state law, closure would be the only option for Wayne County schools should they continue to refuse Carver Heights Elementary’s takeover by the Innovative School District (ISD) , a state initiative engineered to potentially allow private charter operators into lagging traditional public schools.
Dunsmore said closure would undoubtedly be a disruption to students, but the superintendent said his system would “absolutely” consider that option should the board go along with a recommendation to take over Carver Heights.
Carver Heights, a grades 3-5 school that’s among the lowest-performing public schools in North Carolina , was the only recommended selection for the GOP-spearheaded program this year.
“Our state board was put into a horrific position because they weren’t given choices,” added Dunsmore, who called it a “travesty” that Wayne County administrators will not be allowed to make a presentation to defend themselves at this week’s state board meeting.
There’s no guarantee state board members will agree to the proposed takeover of Carver Heights when they vote Thursday. Several members again expressed reservations about the process  Wednesday, and one – board Vice Chairman Alan Duncan – went so far as to question whether the Wayne County school could receive a “waiver” for the program this year.
Under current state law, the state board is expected to choose five schools by next year, potentially setting up an even more frantic – and controversial – takeover push in the 2019-2020 school year.
North Carolina officials in the ISD hope to make Carver Heights the second entry into the program.
After a similar conflagration, state officials this year turned over operations in a struggling Robeson County elementary to a private nonprofit with deep ties to the N.C. General Assembly and the state’s school choice movement . The nonprofit’s leadership includes an ex-state lawmaker who led the program’s creation in the General Assembly  nearly three years ago.
The ISD is designed to turn around performance in some of the state’s most troubled public schools, and supporters say it’s a long-needed rescue mission affecting schools in some of North Carolina’s poorest regions.
Yet the program’s been plagued by criticisms from public school advocates, who point to the middling performance of similar programs in states like Tennessee and Louisiana as evidence that North Carolina’s initiative may be doomed to failure.
Critics have also lambasted what they view as a Republican-led effort to open public schools to privatization. Indeed, legislators were lobbied by a wealthy school choice booster from out of state  to create the ISD, Policy Watch has reported.
Board member J.B. Buxton, a former state school administrator recently named to the board by Gov. Roy Cooper, said Wednesday that lawmakers had created a troublesome selection process. “We set up a contest that nobody wants to win,” Buxton said.
Yet this year’s proposal for Wayne County has been particularly perilous for state administrators in the ISD, who recommended Carver Heights’ takeover just weeks after notifying the school and the community that they were on the shortlist.
ISD leaders also held just one community meeting in one community — the Wayne County city of Goldsboro — before making their choice in mid-October. That meeting was a reportedly rancorous gathering crammed with takeover opponents .
ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen told state board members Wednesday that Carver Heights had the lowest test scores among the finalists, and that the school’s plans for addressing the problem were not as advanced as schools in other parts of the state.
“These are some hard questions, these are some hard conversations,” Allen said. “But we’re willing to take them on.”
But Dunsmore describes the state’s appraisal as unfair. “I think they made up their mind that they were taking Carver Heights and they didn’t do their due diligence,” he said.
Dunsmore said the school had applied for and received a school improvement grant  to boost operations at Carver Heights. But the superintendent said the system delayed a state application for charter-like flexibilities under North Carolina’s “Restart” program  because they believed their existing grant discouraged the changes in leadership required by the Restart initiative.
Since ISD staff recommended Carver Heights though, Wayne County leaders went forward with their “Restart” application and hired a new principal in Patrice Faison , a former state Principal of the Year  lauded for her turnaround efforts in a High Point elementary school in 2012. Carver Heights’ application for the “Restart” program is also on the board’s agenda for consideration this week.
Dunsmore said he believes the state’s speedy selection process this year slighted his school, arguing that last year’s process excluded schools like Carver Heights who had received a school improvement grant. He also noted that the school’s current grade 3-5 configuration has only been in place for two full school years, not providing enough time to assess performance.
Meanwhile, Dunsmore slammed Allen’s office for a lack of communication and unclear selection criteria. “If I was to do that from my chair, I wouldn’t have a job,” Dunsmore said.
State leaders like Allen and Eric Hall, North Carolina’s deputy state superintendent for innovation and the ISD program’s former chief, have repeatedly defended their selection process, while acknowledging that a statutory requirement to make a recommendation by mid-October – just weeks after state performance data is available – can create a hectic approval timeline.
The state board is required to either vote for or against Carver Heights’ takeover by Dec. 15, but, adding to the complications, state lawmakers are mulling a handful of legislative changes to the ISD program in a pending technical corrections bill  making its way through the state legislature this week.
Among those changes, local boards of education could be cleared to serve as an operator in the program under the supervision of the ISD and the state board, potentially heading off takeover by an outside group in places like Wayne County.
And the bill could also mandate that schools which do not improve after five years in the ISD be closed. Hall said Wednesday that his office requested the first change, but not the second.
Officials seemed to suggest that the bill, if approved, may offer a more palatable alternative for Wayne County’s leaders if the local school board is allowed to serve as the operator. In that scenario, the program would shift into supporting locals, rather than forcing a takeover.
Yet, amid talk of waiving or delaying Carver Heights’ takeover Wednesday, at least one state board member bristled at the prospect.
Olivia Holmes Oxendine, a 2013 appointee of former Gov. Pat McCrory, is a Robeson County resident who backed the program’s takeover of a school in her county last year.
“A waiver to me would be acquiescing to the political winds or acquiescing to the best interests or the whims of adults, not that of students,” said Oxendine.
Both sides seemed to suggest this week that the other was manipulating troubled schools for political points. “We can’t make our children political pawns,” Dunsmore told Policy Watch Tuesday. “We can’t do that to the state of North Carolina.”
The superintendent said he’s communicated his concerns to state lawmakers representing Wayne County. Among those, Rep. John Bell  is the Republican majority leader in the state House of Representatives.
Bell did not respond to Policy Watch interview requests this week, but another member of Wayne County’s delegation, state Rep. Larry Bell , a nine-term Democrat and former public schools superintendent in neighboring Sampson County, said he believes the program will struggle if it forces its way into Wayne County without public support.
Bell added, however, that he’s opposed the state program since its controversy-riddled unveiling in the legislature.
“I think if the people who are currently in control of the school system are given the funds they need to allow them to work on the issues, they could do a better job than someone they bring in from the outside,” said Bell. “If any improvement takes place, it’s going to be with the people who are already there.”
State board members are scheduled to take a vote on Carver Heights Thursday. Check with Policy Watch for updates.