Lincoln County’s delegation to the North Carolina General Assembly lent an ear to local leaders Monday morning, just two days before the start of the new legislative session.
Both N.C. Rep. Jason Saine and N.C. Sen. David Curtis were on hand for a joint meeting with members of the county’s Board of Commissioners and Board of Education, hearing from each group exactly what legislative priorities they would like to see pushed during the session convening today in Raleigh.
One theme that emerged throughout the discussion was the desire by both local boards for more flexibility on a number of issues.
“We (the county) would prefer more flexibility,” County Manager George Wood said, noting that such an approach, rather than a “top-driven situation,” would better suit local needs.
School Board member Bob Silver similarly said that some government mandates should be left up to educators.
“It allows us to be more creative,” he added.
Saine agreed that many decisions are best left to local leaders.
“I want to see you guys have all the flexibility in the world,” he said.
The school calendar was one such item where there appeared to be unanimous support for it to be dictated at the local level.
Lincoln County Schools Superintendent Sherry Hoyle named the issue as among the Board of Education’s top priorities, saying that they would like the ability to tailor the calendar to better fit the county.
Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Matt Stover said, as things currently stand, it’s essentially a “bookmark situation.”
“We’re bookended on the front and the back,” he said in reference to the calendar’s required start and end dates.
He said this has also contributed to creating a less-than-ideal exam schedule after Christmas break.
School Board member Ed Hatley said the calendar should be curriculum-driven, while also allowing for built-in snow days so students and parents don’t have to deal with makeup days on Saturdays.
Curtis said he was in total agreement, lamenting the fact that the calendar has previously been driven by tourism — and, specifically, by legislators in the eastern part of the state.
Discretionary cuts were also discussed, with Hoyle saying they received some relief last year that enabled the school system to keep 11 positions.
Superintendent for Business Steve Zickefoose said previous cuts have reduced the amount of teacher positions, while increasing class sizes, and also eliminated teacher assistants.
He noted that both actions have “a major impact on how we operate.”
School security was also briefly touched on. The Board of Education has been exploring options in recent weeks for making the county’s schools safer, following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut last month.
Saine noted that he’s heard from people on all sides of the issue, specifically those calling for teachers to be armed with Tasers, but he stressed that local boards shouldn’t hesitate to take action.
“Don’t wait on us, please,” he said.
However, he did say that the Legislature will research its options, as well.
County officials likewise presented their list of priority items, including opposing the potential shift of the state’s secondary-road system back onto counties, reinstating the full share of lottery funds for school construction and debt service, opposing unfunded mandates that shift responsibilities to the counties, helping preserve the existing local revenue base, ensuring adequate mental-health funding and retaining the current nonemergency-medical transportation system.
Wood said these were the same priorities decided upon by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners during its Legislative Goals Conference, which was held Jan. 24-25 in Durham County.
Commission Chairman Alex Patton said he felt like the state doesn’t always think about how arbitrary cuts affect local municipalities.
Saine noted that the problem the General Assembly is now facing is who to shortchange after previous Legislatures that “spent, spent, spent.”
Nonetheless, he said he considers education a priority. As chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Information Technology, Saine plans to push for improvements to digital learning.
Specifically, one of his goals is to expand, improve and quicken broadband access so that students have the tools they need in a digital world.
Silver added that he wants Lincoln County Schools to be on an equal playing field, saying students must be prepared for 21st-century technology so they can have 21st-century careers.
The meeting wrapped up with a discussion on the expected state budget, with both Saine and Curtis noting that revenues are up this year. Curtis said that funds are in “a lot better shape,” but he warned that it’s difficult to predict how much Medicaid — which he described as a “huge black hole” — will cost the state.