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Politics
An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

NC House Considers Controversial Bills On Muncipalities' Power, Charter Schools

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A number of controversial bills are before the North Carolina House today. They include stripping some key powers from municipalities and making school districts give more to charter schools. The House will reconvene at 7 o’clock Tuesday night. Joining All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey to catch us up on what’s happened so far are WFAE’s Tom Bullock and Lisa Worf. 

RUMSEY: Thanks to both of you for joining me and, Tom, let’s start with you. Tell me about Senate Bill 279.

BULLOCK: This started as a conference committee bill to certify counselors and lay out provisions on sexual education in schools and teaching kids about sexual trafficking. Then, late last night, three new provisions were added – and by new, I mean these were not just new to the bill, they had yet to be considered by either the house or senate. That alone is unusual, doubly so since these would represent significant changes to what cities and towns could do. 

RUMSEY:  Okay, let’s take those measures one by one. The first was about the minimum wage.

BULLOCK: That’s right. The bill would ban municipalities from setting their own minimum wage. This seems to be an attack on the living wage debate going on nationwide. But I asked Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann about this and he said while he is still trying to dissect the measure, it doesn’t seem to represent a change. 

RUMSEY: The second provision deals with what’s called fair housing.

BULLOCK: And it’s also known as affordable housing. And here’s where things get controversial. Hagemann says the bill may limit a city’s ability to require developers to build affordable housing along with their standard projects. He’s still digging through that. But there are two areas which he feels confident would change. The first deals with city regulations to ban some discrimination in housing.

HAGEMANN: What it would do in my opinion is prohibit extending protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

BULLOCK: And the second thing is this.

HAGEMANN: It appears to me that legislation may eliminate minimum housing codes, which protect tenants and rental properties.

BULLOCK: This would be things like requirements regarding running water and working heat before a property can be rented. Hagemann adds he isn’t sure if this language was intentional or unintentional when it was included in the bill. And the final provision was similar to the religious freedom bills that made headlines in Indiana and Arkansas earlier this year. It would bar cities from enforcing ordinances that would require businesses to do business with all people regardless of any religious beliefs that may be violated in that process. 

RUMSEY: Tom, this is a lot of stuff. Do we know why these measures have been introduced?

BULLOCK: No and we don’t know why so late in the session.  Here’s what Rep. Bill Brawley from Mecklenburg County asked his fellow Republican Paul Stam.

BRAWLEY: The purpose of this bill, cutting through the lawyer talk that both you and Rep. Bishop have used, is basically tell cities, “You never could do this. Stop doing that.” 

BULLOCK: It’s not exactly it. It would require the federal government to step in to enforce laws that have been enforced locally for some time.  We’ll know whether or not the house will vote on this bill later tonight or early tomorrow. 

RUMSEY: Thank you WFAE’s Tom Bullock and turning now to Lisa Worf. Under this latest charter school bill, Lisa, school districts would have to hand over more money to charter schools.  That would include money used to administer programs not all charters have. How would that work? 

WORF: First of all, education accounting is complicated.  So you’re going to have to bear with me a bit. 

RUMSEY:  Okay…

WORF: Here’s a quick primer on how charters get paid. The state gives school districts about $5,300 per student. Most counties, if not all, like Mecklenburg also pitch in extra money.  The school district passes both that state and local money on to the charter.  So when a student in Mecklenburg County attends a charter, CMS hands over about $8,500 to that school because it’s not taking on the cost of educating that student.  But school districts get a lot of money they don’t currently have to pass on.

RUMSEY: Like what?

WORF: Take the money the federal government gives to districts to provide lunch for students from low-income families.  That money has to be spent on feeding kids.  But the district is given a certain amount of money to spend on administering the program.  In this case, that would be on the cooking and storage of the food.  That’s called indirect costs.  Under this new legislation, that money would have to go to charters even if they don’t offer any lunches for their students. That’s part of the reason the North Carolina School Boards Association says it’s unfair.  Here’s Leanne Winner with the group. 

WINNER: Our organization is very much opposed to this piece of legislation. It provides funding to charter schools for programs and services that they may or may not even be providing. 

WORF: And then she points out there’s the money CMS spends to teach classes at the county jail.  The sheriff’s office reimburses the district for that, but under this bill the district would have to share that money with charters, again, even though they don’t provide these classes or services. The same would go for other grants and gifts given to the district without any stipulations for where it goes.

RUMSEY: Obviously, school districts don’t think this is fair. So why do supporters of the bill say this makes sense? 

WORF: Charter school leaders often complain their schools don’t receive nearly as much money as traditional public schools.  For example, they don’t receive any money from the state or county for capital expenses like building a school or buying a bus.  So they say this bill would balance things out better. Here’s Eddie Goodall with the NC Alliance for Public Charter schools North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association.

GOODALL: We need to give the charter schools a fair share of public dollars, so it can have its programs, it can do what it needs to do.  If you take the approach that it doesn’t have to be shared if it’s a program, you can see how programs could multiply. 

WORF:  Goodall guesses charter schools across the state would get an extra $15 million under the bill. CMS estimates it would have to handover an extra $1 million.