North Carolina state law would seem to provide just two options for Wayne County school leaders: Close or accept the state’s takeover of a Goldsboro elementary school following last week’s reluctant vote by the State Board of Education.
But, in an interview with Policy Watch Wednesday, Wayne County Superintendent Michael Dunsmore wouldn’t rule out a third option: File a lawsuit that challenges state officials’ handling of the troubled Innovative School District selection process.
“Everything is on the table,” Dunsmore said.
The high-stakes drama in Wayne County comes with state lawmakers mulling new rules for their controversial program, which could turn over operations in a struggling traditional public school to an outside operator, including, possibly, for-profit companies and charter management organizations.
One revision to a state Senate technical corrections bill would allow local school boards to potentially be chosen as the operator at Carver Heights Elementary, an amendment requested by Department of Public Instruction administrators in recent days as opposition mounted in the eastern North Carolina community.
Senate lawmakers voted down that technical corrections bill Tuesday, although a conference committee of House and Senate legislators is expected to hash out their differences this week. Dunsmore said he’s “guardedly optimistic” lawmakers will back the revisions.
Wayne County leaders have indicated some interest in serving as the school operator, with the support and guidance of the ISD. State board members likewise seem amenable to that option, with members applauding the school district’s recent efforts.
In last week’s unanimous vote to approve the recommendation for a Carver Heights takeover, board members ordered the ISD to “respect, uphold and maintain” changes already made at Carver Heights.
Since Carver Heights was recommended for takeover in October, the district has hired a former state Principal of the Year credited with a turnaround in a High Point school.
Also, school leaders had already applied for and received state grants to boost performance at the school, and they’re in the midst of an application for the state’s “Restart” program, which grants traditional schools charter-like flexibilities.
However, as state law currently stands, local officials would have no guarantees they would ultimately be tapped as the operator should they go along with the takeover.
“If we put that work in and only the ISD superintendent is evaluating and making that recommendation, I’m not sure I’m that trusting,” said Dunsmore.
Wayne County school chiefs have been at odds with ISD leaders since their mid-October selection, which came just days after locals found out they were on the short-list for the takeover program. It also followed days after a hastily convened community meeting in Goldsboro. ISD leaders did not hold a similar meeting with any other community, making the recommendation to choose a Wayne County school all but certain.
Furthermore, with just one pick on the table and state law requiring a takeover in the coming year, state board members had little choice in their vote last week to accept that recommendation.
Wayne County leaders blasted ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen for her handling of the process. They’ve also intimated that Allen – who took over the post in September – provided false information or was untruthful in making her recommendation.
“To sit and say how they’ve engaged me and my community, that’s simply not accurate,” Dunsmore said Wednesday.
Dunsmore and school leaders also noted in a letter to state board members that Allen claimed to have based their decision on lagging test scores among a stable student population, indicating that 70 percent of those students were the same students tested the year before. According to Wayne County, that number’s really about 30 percent, the result of a new grades 3-5 configuration in the elementary.
Allen did not respond to a Policy Watch interview request this week, but the state official has defended her handling of the process multiple times, pointing out that Carver Heights had the lowest scores of the six schools on their shortlist.
According to their latest state report card, Carver Heights earned “F” scores in reading and math in 2016-2017, and did not meet their expected growth goals. The ISD makes a selection from schools among the lowest scoring in the state.
Many of those schools, however, serve a particularly challenging population. Roughly 90 percent of students at Carver Heights are considered economically disadvantaged, a population that tends to struggle academically.
Wayne school leaders are expected to seek a local redistricting that would break up the large concentrations of low-income students in schools like Carver Heights.
Wayne County officials aren’t the only ones considering their options. Sylvia Barnes, president of the Wayne County chapter of the NAACP, says she’s been in talks with state NAACP leaders, who are providing support in opposition to the takeover at Carver Heights, where the vast majority of students – about 90 percent – are Black.
“It is our concern here that the ISD has no part in Wayne County,” Barnes said this week.
State NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman could not be reached for comment this week, but the organization, along with several public school advocacy organizations, has been ardently opposed to the takeover model, which was created by mostly GOP state lawmakers in 2016.
Backers describe the program as a fresh reform for long-stagnant schools, but critics like the N.C. Association of Educators call it a “privatization scheme” that’s failed in states like Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana.
Indeed, those programs have struggled with public opposition and middling scores in other states, but North Carolina ISD leaders say their model is different in that it will launch with a smaller pool of schools. State board members are expected to take over five schools by next year, setting up an even more frantic – and possibly controversial – selection process in 2019.
The first school chosen for the program, Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County, is in its first year of the takeover and still awaiting academic data. But state board member Olivia Holmes Oxendine, a resident of Robeson County, says locals who initially opposed the takeover have mostly come around to back the initiative.
Dunsmore says Robeson County’s decision matters little to him and his local school board. “They did what was best for their schools in Robeson County.”
Finding a compromise will require a lot of “give and take” with ISD officials, Dunsmore said. “But right now, they have a lot of credibility issues they need to clean up,” he added.
Barnes, meanwhile, says she’s hoping to rally the community further, planning a community meeting next week as local school board members consider their options.
Barnes said she believes state board members’ “hands were tied” by a poor process when they voted unanimously last week to seize Carver Heights.
“How can you say Wayne County is the best school when you did not meet with any of those other communities?” said Barnes.