Board takes a stand against vouchers
The Haywood County School Board missed the deadline to join a state legal battle to fight school vouchers, but it signed a resolution Monday in support of the litigation.
If the school vouchers lawsuit ever reaches an appeal, the school board could then join the litigation. The deadline to participate was Feb. 12, but unsafe weather conditions prevented the board from taking a vote during its regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 10.
The board instead signed a resolution Monday night supporting the lawsuit, which was carried 7-1, with board member Bob Morris opposing.
“I wish the NCSBA would spend as much time fighting this teacher 25 (percent) pay raises instead of the litigation,” Morris said, referring to the new legislation that requires Haywood County Schools to offer four-year contracts that include annual $500 raises to only 25 percent of teachers. “I wish we were fighting for our teachers instead of fighting vouchers. We’ve got good schools. I don’t see vouchers as an issue, that’s me. I believe in our schools, and I’d rather be fighting for our teachers.”
Last month, Chairman Chuck Francis recommended joining litigation against a new state law that created “opportunity scholarships” with taxpayer dollars to help low-income students attend private schools. However, the school board decided not to take action until more information was known about the litigation.
Francis made a recommendation on Monday to sign a resolution supporting the litigation in case the school system could participate in the future.
“This board has the opportunity to still support the resolution but not be included on the initial lawsuit,” Francis said. “What would happen is that we would be on record and if it goes into an appeal process we could join at a later time.”
While only a handful of schools had joined the litigation last month, to date there are currently 69 school systems participating in the legal battle. The resolution that was signed by the school board stated that the North Carolina School Boards Association would cover all litigation costs.
The litigation came to fruition when a group of plaintiffs with the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina Justice Center filed a lawsuit in December challenging the vouchers.
The voucher scholarships are capped at $4,200 per student, but scholarship amounts must not exceed the actual cost of tuition and fees. Families eligible cannot have incomes that exceed 133 percent of the federal poverty level, at least for the first year.
To be eligible for the voucher, a student must live in a household that meets 100 percent of free and reduced lunch qualifications. In addition, eligible students must be a full-time student who has not graduated and has attended a public school during the 2014 spring semester.
Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools, estimates that about 4,000 of 7,500 Haywood County students would be eligible for the scholarship.
If home-schooled students decide to attend a private school, Garrett said it could direct funding away from public schools.
“The children who are home-schooled don't get money from us now, but if they go to a charter school, they will get money that comes from (the part of our budget that comes from) our county commissioners,” Garrett said during a Feb. 3 work session. “So there goes our budget.”
Views on vouchers
During its monthly meeting, the school board also heard comments from local residents opposing the litigation.
Monroe Miller said one reason he wasn't in support of the litigation was because a portion of the litigation would be paid by taxpayer dollars that were contributed to the NCSBA in annual dues. He also said that vouchers should be made available to parents who wished to enroll their child in a private school.
After looking up Haywood's high school scores online at www.ncreportcards.org, Miller said he noticed that percentage of student scores at or above grade level in math were average.
“If I had a child at one of these high schools, I would want to have the option of doing something about it," Miller said. "If I qualified for a voucher assistance grant, I would want to look into that. I resent that you as a board are even considering using taxpayer funds to vote on a resolution to participate in the NCSBA school voucher lawsuit.”
Both Juanita Dixon and John Geers encouraged the board to support the litigation against vouchers.
Dixon argued that the U.S. Constitution required the state to provide funds for public schools but not for private schools.
“If the Legislature really had any confidence in public schools and cared about the low income students, it would follow the constitutional mandate which is to provide a general and uniform system of free public schools, instead of softening off of desperately needed funds for private schools like things through this voucher system,” Dixon said.
Dixon also expressed concerns regarding the type of school system that would be available to her great-grandchildren.
“If our legislation doesn’t stop picking funds away from our public schools, and continue to disparage and discourage our teachers, while piling more and more responsibilities on them, I worry that these children will not have those opportunities,” Dixon said about her great-grandchildren. “It’s time to stand up and be counted.”
Geers has had experience teaching in private schools and also has enrolled his children in private schools. Based on what he’s experienced, Geers said he hoped the board would support the litigation against vouchers.
“My children went to some private schools. Some were good, and some bad,” Geers said. “And my children went to public schools, some good and some bad. … I think we are very fortunate have public school system we have here. So I encourage you strongly to participate in the lawsuit.”