By Johnny Kampis
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper’s call for more money for schools while also indicating he would veto a bill that could send students back to school has many in the state scratching their heads.
Last week, Cooper held a news conference in which he called for boosted spending on educators for the rest of the fiscal year that ends in June. But he has also expressed disdain for Senate Bill 37, “In-Person Learning Choice for Families,” which would require districts to offer some form of in-person learning for all students in the state.
The Senate passed the bill, 29-15, Tuesday, with primarily Republican support. The bill was amended in the House Rules committee to include a provision for “reasonable accommodations,” including a remote work option. The House is expected to vote on the bill Thursday, Feb. 11.
Joseph Kyzer is a spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.
“Experts agree that safely returning to school is vital for students who are falling behind academically and suffering emotional difficulties from isolation, and the General Assembly has provided powerful funding to support local education districts in this bipartisan effort,” he told Carolina Journal.
The presumed double-speak from the governor has led to confusion among educators. Some school leaders told EducationNC they expected Cooper to loosen social-distancing guidelines so that they could better enable instruction in classrooms. Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott told the outlet that his district’s classrooms aren’t large enough to hold classes and keep students six feet apart.
“I was left feeling confused and frustrated by the conflicting messages that we are receiving,” he said.
A Cooper spokesperson said Cooper encourages districts to open statewide — as long as they can keep safety measures in place that include social distancing in middle and high schools.
About 25 of the state’s 115 school districts currently offer no in-person instruction.
The rhetoric has led some Republican lawmakers to put Cooper and the Democratic members of the legislature on blast. Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, sent a news release Monday accusing Democrats of saying they support reopening of schools while actually opposing measures to reopen them.
She says pressure from the N.C. Association of Educators, which is opposing the full reopening of schools, is dictating how Democrats perceive the issue.
“Democrats tried to have it both ways,” Ballard said. “Now they’re searching for any excuse they can to justify voting against reopening after claiming to support it.”
After the General Assembly passed a bill Thursday, Feb. 4, that provided more than $2 billion in federal pandemic aid across the state, including $1.6 billion for public schools, Cooper said the schools need yet more money. Cooper signed the bill, though, Wednesday.
As Carolina Journal reported, Cooper wanted another $695 million reallocated from the General Fund to various categories, including $468 million in bonuses for teachers and staff in K-12 schools, community colleges and universities. This could require dipping into the state’s “rainy day” fund.
Ballard noted that school districts still have unspent money from the $356 million in school aid the legislature passed last year, and she pointed out that lawmakers also provided schools with a “hold harmless” budget provision that keeps funding at the same level even if fewer students attend schools.
Joe Coletti, senior fellow in fiscal and economic policy at the John Locke Foundation, said legislators — who have been reluctant to allocate more money for schools until revenue forecasts are made — should stay the course and wait for more information. They can then work with Cooper in planning the budget for the next fiscal year, he said.
“We don’t know what the federal government will be sending down in the future, and they’ve already sent down enough money to take care of the budget and teachers this year,” he noted.
Coletti also blamed Cooper for teachers not receiving more money. The governor vetoed a teacher compensation bill last year that would have given them 3.9% raises, but Cooper wanted a 9.1% increase. Republicans then agreed to a deal that would have provided 4.4% raises, but Cooper vetoed that, too.
“It’s his own fault that they’re not getting paid more,” Coletti said.
He also pointed out it’s unfair for the NCAE and its allies to try to keep teachers out of the classroom while then asking for bonuses.
“Nobody should be able to jump to the head of the line to get a bonus this close to the fiscal year,” Coletti said.