Winston-Salem NAACP plans to protest Civitas-sponsored school board budget training session

by Keith Barber

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County branch of the NAACP is planning a political rally and protest of a budget training seminar co-sponsored by the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and the John W. Pope Civitas Institute slated for April 14. “We are planning to schedule a protest in disagreement with the school board’s decision,” said Wayne Patterson, president of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County branch of the NAACP. “That decision is not logical with the views of the residents of Winston-Salem; members who voted for it, they’re not looking at the entire picture. The budget proposal is only a small matter of the big picture.” By a vote of 5-3, the school board approved a resolution to co-sponsor the seminar with the Civitas Institute during its regular meeting last week. Board member Elisabeth Motsinger said the vote split the nonpartisan board along party lines with the three Democrats on the board — Motsinger, Vic Johnson and Geneva Brown — voting against the measure. Republican board members Donny Lambeth, Jane Goins, Buddy Collins, Jeannie Metcalf and Jill Tackaberry voted in favor of co-sponsoring the budget training session with Civitas Institute next month. Board member Marilyn Parker, a Republican, did not attend last week’s meeting. The resolution adopted by the school board states that the budget training session fulfills four of the 12 hours of staff development training required annually of board members. State law requires school board members to receive 12 hours of professional training annually from the NC School Boards Association, the UNC School of Government or any “qualified sources at the choice of the local board of education.” Motsinger openly questioned the majority of board members’ decision to deem Civitas Institute a qualified source for professional training. “I find it deeply disturbing that our school board would choose to align itself with a very ideological organization when there is no need to,” Motsinger said. “Civitas is actually not empowered to grant us credit; any credit that is granted can only be given by the district itself. Therefore, there is no rational reason for us to be engaged with this particular organization.”

Board member Jill Tackaberry said she’s concerned about the perception that Civitas Institute is speaking directly to school board members, and that board members don’t hold their own set of beliefs and priorities regarding budgetary issues. Tackaberry said board members can make the distinction between ideology and objective information about the current budget situation.

“My decision [to approve the seminar] was purely based on the three speakers we’re going to have as far as their backgrounds, their extensive knowledge of our current budget situation and how budgets are done,” Tackaberry said. “I’m sort of surprised by the amount of pushback considering who is speaking to us.”

Board member Geneva Brown said she didn’t support co-sponsoring a budget seminar with Civitas Institute because it is a “conservative group” and she doesn’t agree with its positions on education issues. E-mails and phone calls placed to board chairman Donny Lambeth as well as board members Jeannie Metcalf, Jane Goins, Marilyn Parker, Vic Johnson and Buddy Collins were not returned for this story.

Patterson said given the highly politicized activity of Civitas Action — a spinoff of the John W. Pope Civitas Institute — during the 2010 midterm elections, Civitas Institute is “the last group of people we need to advise our school board on responsible budget cuts.”

According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, Civitas Action, a 501(c)4 organization, poured $196,272 into the 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 rest came from Art Pope’s political group, Americans for Prosperity. The 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.

“You’re co-sponsoring with a right-wing conservative group,” Patterson said. “You’re not taking into account the diversity of the people in the school system.”

The Civitas Institute has consistently supported efforts to re-segregate, disinvest and privatize public schools in North Carolina, most notably in Wake County, Patterson added.

Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, is one of three speakers scheduled to speak at the April 14 training session. Phil Price, chief finance officer at the NC Department of Public Instruction, and Kerry Crutchfield, the retired director of finance for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools will also speak during the seminar.

Last year, Stoops published a research paper about charter schools entitled “Charter School Diversity: Too black, too white or just right?” In the paper, Stoops addresses what he perceives as a contradiction between two sections of the same state statute about charter schools. NC General Stature 115C 238.29F mandates that within one year after a charter school begins operation “the population of the school shall reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the general population residing within the local school administrative unit in which the school is located or the racial and ethnic composition of the special population that the school seeks to serve residing within the local school administrative unit.”

Another section of the statute stipulates that if the number of applications exceeds the capacity of the school, students will be accepted by lottery. Stoops concludes that the NC General Assembly should strike the “affirmative action clause” in the charter school statute and that the State Board of Education should apologize to all charter schools in the state for not asking the legislature to correct the “contradictions” in the law. Stoops also advocates the state legislature lift enrollment caps on charter schools, which he argues would give minority applicants a better chance of gaining admission.

Tackaberry said she has read some of Stoops’ research papers on education issues and noted that she doesn’t agree with all of Stoops’ positions.

According to the Civitas Institute website, the four-hour seminar is designed to answer the following questions: “Does your school board have a plan to manage anticipated reductions in state and local education funding? How will budget reductions effect [SIC] the delivery of academic programs and services? Are there strategies school boards and educational officials can develop to help minimize the impact of these changes on the classroom?” Price is scheduled to speak on how the state public school budget is developed. Stoops will speak on challenges to the education budget, and Crutchfield will give a talk entitled, “You Need to Cut the Budget; Now What?” The cost of attendance is $40 and invitations have been sent out to board members of the Piedmont Triad Education Consortium and Northwest Regional Educational Service Alliance. The $40 fee will be waived for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board members in exchange for use of the school system’s Education Building as a venue.

Patterson pointed out that John Dornan, former president of the NC Public Schools Forum, withdrew as a seminar speaker in January after learning the training session was being sponsored by Civitas Institute. Dornan sent a letter to Superintendent Donald L. Martin stating: “While I believe in a free exchange of ideas and respect the right of any would-be think tank, be it Civitas or the Public School Forum, to hold views contrary to my own, I do not agree with Civitas when it comes to their stance on public schools and would not knowingly help them advance their views.”

In the letter, Dornan characterized Civitas’ recent entry into the school board training arena as “a thinly veiled attempt to spread their ideology, not one focused on building the capacity of school board members to make decisions that will strengthen the public schools.”

Patterson said Dornan’s decision to decline to speak at the budget seminar speaks volumes about differences within the education community regarding the appropriateness of Civitas sponsoring training sessions for local school boards on budgetary issues.

“At a time when more and more organizations are distancing themselves from the ideologically driven Civitas Institute, the school board would be putting themselves, as well as our schools, students and teachers, in the unfortunate position of being associated with people who want to take us backwards, and dismantle public education,” Patterson said.