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Civitas Institute-sponsored budget seminar for school system generates controversy

by Keith Barber

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Elisabeth Motsinger is a members of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board who objects to a budget seminar sponsored by the conservative Civitas Institute. (courtesy photo)

Tripp Jeffers openly questions the intentions of the John W. Pope Civitas Institute in its sponsorship of an education budget seminar for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools slated for Jan. 14.

Given the highly politicized activity of Civitas Action — a spinoff of the Civitas Institute — Jeffers, the president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, asked why the school board would choose to co-sponsor an education budget seminar with the nonprofit.

“Our school board is a very good school board and well educated in dealing with complicated budget matters,” Jeffers said. “If their intention is to not just train our school board members but skew them in a particular direction, that would be suspect.”

According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, Civitas Action poured $196,272 into 22 targeted political contests in North Carolina this fall, and 72 percent of the $264,890 Civitas Action reportedly raised this election cycle came from Art Pope’s family retail business, Variety Stores. The Civitas Institute is classified by the IRS as a personal foundation because they are so heavily dependent on Art Pope for backing. As a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, they are prohibited from any form of electioneering. Civitas Action is classifed as a 501(c)4, which is a nonpartisan, non-proft organization allowed to do limited forms of electioneering.

The rest came from Art Pope’s political group, Americans for Prosperity. That group spent nearly $285,000 in the 22 North Carolina races.

Real Jobs NC, which was founded by Art Pope, received notoriety for its attack ads during the 2010 midterm elections. The political action committee pumped nearly $1.5 million into targeted state races. Real Jobs NC received $200,000 from Pope’s Variety Stores, according to the Institute for Southern Studies analysis.

Jeffers said. “I would hope that it would be the school board attempting to influence them on public policy matters. It looks like an opportunity for our school board members to make connections with some of the power brokers in the upcoming legislative session and exert a little influence among the power players in the General Assembly, but it still does raise some concerns.”

Event invitations were mailed out to school board members last month.

School board member Elisabeth Motsinger described her reaction to the letter as visceral.

“My reaction to the letter was to be very upset because Civitas clearly has a political agenda it is not an agenda that is strongly supportive of public schools,” Motsinger said. “It’s disturbing to me that any group that has stated they don’t support public schools is holding a seminar on budgeting for public schools.”

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Donald L. Martin credited board member Buddy Collins with the idea of the Civitas Institute co-hosting a budget seminar with the school system.

According to the Civitas Institute’s website, the four-hour seminar will address three important questions for school board members. The seminar proposes to address the school system’s plan for responding to the budget reductions in light of an estimated $3.5 billion state budget deficit, how those reductions will affect education in the classroom, and how the board of education can work together to develop a “unified voice” on education policy.

Featured speakers will include John Dornan, a former president of the NC Public School Forum; Kerry Crutchfield, the former finance director for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools; and Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation. The seminar will be held at the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools building on Bethania Station Road.

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A question-and-answer session, moderated by Martin, will conclude the seminar. The registration fee is $30 for school board members. According to the Civitas website, board members may count the four hours toward their professional training requirements. Martin said he did not realize the Civitas website mentioned that credit would be given to board members who attend.

“As you probably know, school boards decide what to ‘count’ for credit,” Martin said in an e-mail. “With this program agenda, I can see how a school board might choose to count this seminar for credit.”

Ed Dunlap, president of the NC School Boards Association, pointed out that state law requires school board members to receive 12 hours of professional training annually.

Passed in the early 1990s, the legislation stipulates that professional training be provided by the NC School Boards Association, the UNC School of Government or any “qualified sources at the choice of the local board of education.”

Dunlap said Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools has the authority to invite whatever group they desire to come in and offer professional training. However, Motsinger and fellow school board members Victor Johnson and Jill Tackaberry confirmed that they were not consulted about the school system co-sponsoring an event with the Civitas Institute, and the board of education did not vote on the decision to cosponsor the event with the Civitas Institute.

Martin confirmed that the school board never voted on whether members should be awarded credit for attending the Civitas seminar.

“As a school board member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, I never agreed to this and would not agree to this,” Motsinger said. “If Civitas wishes to do its own training in its own location or rent a location, I have no problem with that. What concerns me is the co-sponsorship with the school district. We should not be aligning ourselves with partisan political organizations.”

Fleming El-Amin, chairman of the Forsyth County Democratic Party, also expressed serious concerns about a political organization co-sponsoring a seminar with the school system. El-Amin said the mission of the Civitas Institute appears to center on the devaluing public education.

“To me it’s like an assault on the premise of public education,” El-Amin said. “Their focus is dollars and cents, not producing 21 st century citizens.”

El-Amin said if a left-leaning group like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State offered to sponsor a workshop with the school system, there would be a tremendous public outcry.

Jeffers agreed with El-Amin’s position. “I wouldn’t want any group on the left or the right exercising undue influence over the school board in these trying times, especially when the stakes are so high,” Jeffers said. “I wonder if a very active group on the left like ACORN or the ACLU would’ve been allowed to co-sponsor an event with the school system? I think people would’ve gone ballistic.”

Nathan Tabor, chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party, said the training is not mandatory and comes at no cost to the taxpayers, so he doesn’t see the problem.

“If there was a liberal group coming in and it was being paid for by the taxpayers and the teachers were being forced to go hear a liberal agenda, I would have a problem with that,” Tabor said. “But since they can get their hours somewhere else, not being funded by taxpayers and not mandatory, the only problem I could see anybody having with this is they want to suppress thought, they want to suppress free speech.”

Tackaberry said she would not have a problem if a progressive group like Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment, or CHANGE, or the ACLU were deemed a qualified organization by the school board and the group offered to provide professional training to board members.

Victor Johnson said he does not plan on attending the education seminar and the Civitas Institute should be up front about its political agenda.

“The people in this community need to know where they’re coming from and who they are,” Johnson said. “I have a real problem with groups trying to persuade people on [public policy].”

E-mails and phone calls placed to board chairman Donny Lambeth as well as board members Jeannie Metcalf, Jane Goins, Marilyn Parker and Buddy Collins were not returned for this story.

Motsinger said her biggest objection to the school system co-sponsoring a budget seminar with the Civitas Institute is her belief that the goal of the conservative group runs counter to the mission of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

“Our focus is to provide a good and sound public education to every child,” Motsinger said. “The focus of Civitas is to provide an inexpensive education, not an excellent education.”

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