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Opinion
Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

Johnston County whitewashing is another reason to let NC school boards raise their own money

Like many bad laws, this one came from good intentions.

In the early part of North Carolina’s history, local schools mostly funded themselves. But when the Great Depression hit, local schools started running out of money. So the state government passed the School Machinery Act. That gave the state the responsibility of paying for operating schools day to day — teachers’ salaries and such — and left counties to pay for school buildings and other facilities.

Things have gotten more complicated since the 1930s, but the model is roughly the same. The crucial difference between North Carolina and most other places is that school boards here can’t levy their own taxes. It’s up to county commissioners to funnel money to the schools. And not surprisingly, some counties act like parents. They don’t want to hand over the money without a lecture first.

That happened last week in Johnston County, over near Raleigh. The county commissioners there held back $7.9 million in money for schools until the school board agreed to teach a certain way about race in America.

The changes made to the school board’s ethics policy sound pretty good at first — there’s a lot of talk about social responsibility, empathy and kindness. But when you get down to the details … well, there’s a sentence in there that says “The United States foundational documents shall not be undermined.” And a little later: “All people who contributed to American Society will be recognized and presented as reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture.”

I don’t know how you interpret that, but it sounds like to me that teachers in Johnston County could teach the glory of the Constitution but not teach that it originally considered an enslaved person to be three-fifths of a human being. Or that they could say Thomas Jefferson is one of the most important figures in our history but couldn’t say that he also fathered children with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved.

In other words, in Johnston County, they seem to have forced the school board into whitewashing history.

This can happen from other angles, too. Here in Mecklenburg County, ccommissioners temporarily held up $56 million in funds because they wanted the school board to detail plans to improve results for black and Hispanic students. After mediation, the county turned over the money and then some, and the school board agreed to provide more information.

In both cases, the county commissioners are a clog in a system that ought to be much more streamlined. School boards ought to be able to levy their own taxes and rise or fall on their decisions. But now, every time the county and the schools squabble, they can just blame each other. As a voter, it’s harder to decide who’s responsible.

Changing state laws that have been on the books for nearly 100 years won’t be easy. But letting school boards handle school business is actually a conservative approach — it reduces a layer of government and adds a layer of accountability.

And maybe along the way, teachers would be able to teach our actual history instead of the sanitized version.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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