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School officials ask state legislators for more flexibility

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Betsy Flanagan, Melina Fagundus and Chris Humphrey mingle together before a discussion concerning school funding and other matters at South Central High School Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.


By Amber Revels-Stocks
The Times-Leader

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Flexibility was the focus of discussion as Pitt County Schools officials met with state legislators on Monday afternoon.

The Pitt County Board of Education and Superintendent Ethan Lenker shared requests and concerns with Sen. Don Davis and Reps. Chris Humphrey, Greg Murphy and Kandie Smith during a workshop meeting at South Central High School in Winterville.

Lenker urged the legislators to restore more local flexibility to public schools in the state..

“Many years ago, the L in LEA (local educational agency) used to stand for ‘local.’ I don’t know what it stands for now because we don’t get to make many choices,” Lenker said. “We used to have flexibility.”

He was speaking not just of calendar flexibility but of hiring and budget flexibility as well.

In the past, the state allowed school districts to determine if they wanted to use money to hire more teachers or more teacher assistants, Lenker said. That ability has gone away.

“We were able to use additional (Academically Intellectually Gifted) and (Limited English Proficiency) money and ‘trade it in’ for additional teacher positions,” he said. “After years of doing that, word came out that if the money wasn’t being used for (Academically Intellectually Gifted) and (Limited English Proficiency), (the state) will cut those funds.

“We lost nine classroom positions because we lost that flexibility,” Lenker said.

Pitt County Schools moved money around to fund as many of those positions as it could; however, the district still lost four classroom positions, he said.

Lenker also asked for flexibility in school calendars. In the past, the district could sync its regular school calendar with Pitt Community College’s academic calendar, he said. This allowed more students to take dual-enrollment classes at the community college without missing class time or trying to fit in college courses around their high school schedules.

Now, the General Assembly places limits on when students can begin school in August, he said. This pushes first semester exams into January, which conflicts with Pitt Community College’s spring semester.

School board member Amy Cole is a mathematics professor at Pitt County Community College.

“I had a class designed for high school students, and we put it on a delayed start because the calendar situation,” Cole said. “Instead of being a 16-week class at PCC, we made it a 14-week class because the high schools are still taking their exams after Christmas.

“What happened last year was they had all the ice and the snow, which pushed Pitt County Schools’ exams back into when my class started,” she said. “I had half my students not there because they were taking their exams to end fall semester. They were coming to my class trying to pay catch up as a first-term college student.

“It’s frustrating to them; it’s frustrating to us,” Cole said. “That calendar alignment is crucial to all those students taking classes out at the college.”

Pitt County Schools students received 3,660 community college credits in spring 2018, officials noted.

The third place in which Lenker asked for flexibility in legislative definitions.

“Renewal district criteria was written so tightly (by the General Assembly) that only one district in the state could apply: Rowan-Salisbury,” Lenker said.

Renewal districts have more flexibility in time, personnel, curriculum and calendar. This enables the district to focus more on personalized learning, including the possibility of not administering N.C. Final exams, according to Assistant Superintendent for Educational Programs and Services Steve Lassiter.

“That time could go into personalized learning and mastery learning,” he said. “When you’re looking at the standards, you set criteria for mastering a particular standard. Mastery is the student’s capacity to fulfill that particular criteria as written. Being able to set those criteria allows students to truly understand the standard.”

Pitt County Schools wants flexibility in the criteria for being named a renewal district because the district does not fall under the definition used previously.

“Rowan-Salisbury was based on the fact that their district had such a high number of low-performing schools. … That would not be our premise because we don’t have a high number of low-performing or reoccurring low-performing schools,” Lassiter said. “Our premise would be to take advantage of the flexibilities being a renewal district would provide us.”

“The key thing here is that flexibility piece,” Lenker said.

The representatives thanked the board of education, the superintendent and his staff for their hard work in the county.

“We hear and appreciate these reports,” Davis said. “Chris and Kandie are going to help fix these issues, so next time, we’ll have fewer topics to discuss.”