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Thanks for the lift: While it was around, I-Ride offered 'freedom' for Greensboro's disabled

GREENSBORO — When Riley Juneau called I-Ride on Dec. 31 to get to work, he found himself without a lift.

Juneau, 20, has a neurological disorder that prevents him from driving, which was why he was a weekly user of I-Ride. The Greensboro Transit Agency pilot program is meant as an alternative to SCAT, which is the organization’s foremost service for the disabled.

But I-Ride abruptly ended on the eve of 2020, leaving Juneau and hundreds of other disabled residents without service.

“It seems like a cruel blow ... to learn that there was actually a tremendous need for it in the community and then take it away,” said Brooke Juneau, who is Riley’s mother.

I-Ride began last year after the city was awarded a $100,000 grant. The program was operated through a contract with UZURV, a Virginia company that provided drivers and vehicles. Much like getting an Uber, I-Ride users paid $6 for a one-way trip.

But eventually the grant money dried up. And there weren’t additional funds available to sustain it.

“We did not have the budget to continue,” said Kevin Elwood, a GTA spokesman.

Originally, the program was planned for six months. But it was slow to catch on. By June, only half of the $100,000 grant had been used. So GTA extended UZURV’s contract.

“People were using it because they liked being able to call it and get a ride when they needed it,” explained councilwoman Sharon Hightower, who is the city’s liaison to GTA’s advisory commission.

The program, however, was expensive to operate. According to GTA statistics, the average cost to the city per ride was around $18.

Available funding quickly dwindled once the service was opened to SCAT riders who use wheelchairs. That required a different type of vehicle from UZURV and cost the city $37 per ride.

Adding to the financial complexity, Hightower said the commission didn’t anticipate how much ridership would grow.

“There was probably not as much forethought as we probably should have had,” Hightower said.

In October, the City Council approved an additional $55,000 to prop up the program through the end of the year.

Brooke Juneau said her son and other I-Ride users liked the service better than SCAT, which picks up several riders and drops them off at various destinations. For that reason, SCAT rides can sometimes last as long as an hour.

Juneau added that I-Ride gave her son more independence and autonomy. He relied on it for a five-minute ride to his job at a local Panera Bread restaurant.

“It was this freedom that he had never had before,” Juneau said. “It was a life-changer for him.”

Juneau hopes the City Council will consider reinstating the program.

Hightower said that’s a possibility.

“It’s a nice alternative and we need to look at what that program would cost us in a year’s time,” she said.


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Meet the man who saved a child from being abducted

GREENSBORO — Enraged.

That’s the emotion Cody Byrd first felt when he realized the man he had just spoken to had apparently tried to kidnap an 8-year-old girl.

The 24-year-old was watching the man hurriedly clean the remnants of his breakfast from a table at the Biscuitville on West Market Street, rushing to leave the restaurant.

Byrd, an N.C. A&T graduate student, had just intervened in an encounter between the girl and the man, whom police later identified as 55-year-old Timothy Jon Fry.

But Byrd didn’t give into that feeling of rage.

He took a more measured approach that resulted in police capturing Fry less than an hour later.

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The morning of Dec. 27 started out normally, with Byrd stopping at the restaurant for breakfast before heading to his part-time job at Perry J. Brown Funeral Home. While waiting for his food, Byrd noticed Fry sitting and staring at the little girl one table over.

“He just kept staring at her and ... it just gave me this weird feeling,” Byrd recalled. “She was just sitting there peacefully ... playing with her dolls.”

Fry kept staring, even as the girl got up to get her and her mother’s food when it was ready, Byrd said.

The girl’s mother, 41-year-old Heather Owen, also noticed the man staring at her daughter.

“He looked angryish,” she recalled during an interview Wednesday. “Like someone who was having a bad day.”

Fry had his arms crossed. Owen noticed he was wearing fingernail polish. Despite her uneasiness, she didn’t want to jump to conclusions that he was dangerous.

“You don’t want to feel that way because people misjudge people all the time,” Owen said.

When her daughter wanted to go to the bathroom, just around the corner in the small restaurant, Owen offered to go with her.

“She said, ‘I’m OK,” Owen said. So Owen told her daughter she would stand at the corner, keeping an eye on her and the table.

Owen wasn’t too worried. It was a single-person bathroom.

“We’re comfortable there,” she said of the restaurant she and her daughter often visited. “People there know us.”

Still, Owen noticed Fry standing outside of the restroom doors.

“Thought maybe somebody was in the bathroom” and he was waiting, Owen remembered thinking at the time.

Meanwhile, Byrd, who was suspicious when Fry followed the girl into the hallway, asked Fry if he was waiting for the bathroom. “And when he said, ‘Oh, no. You go ahead.’ ... That’s when it kind of rang that, OK, something’s not right.”

That left Byrd in a quandary. He didn’t want to go all the way into the men’s room, fearing he wouldn’t get out in time if Fry was up to no good.

He proceeded into the bathroom.

“So it was just a stroke of luck because as soon as I stepped in, I was kind of looking at the mirror, pretending I was going to use the bathroom. I heard the door open for the women’s bathroom and that’s when I stepped back out and I noticed him trying to grab her,” Byrd said.

The girl dodged Fry “and let out this little yelp and ran off,” Byrd said.

“That’s when I asked him: ‘So, do you know her? What are you doing?’ ” Byrd said.

Byrd doesn’t recall if Fry said “yes” or “no.” But he does remember Fry saying “something like he was trying to send a message.”

“I’m still not sure what he meant by that,” Byrd said.

Byrd returned to the table where the mother and now sobbing girl were sitting and asked Owen if she knew the man.

That’s when Fry returned, feverishly clearing his table and getting ready to leave, Byrd said.

“At that moment, I was feeling a rage, like adrenaline rushing,” admitted Byrd, a software engineering student. “I think I initially I just wanted to grab him around the neck and keep him from leaving at all costs.”

He quickly thought it through.

“If I do that, this is going to blow up way bigger than it needs to be. ... I was just thinking, like, I don’t know how that’s going to play out. Is he going to try to say, ‘Oh, he assaulted me.’ ”

The fact that he was a young, black man factored into his thoughts. “That was kind of in the back of my head,” he said.

So Byrd decided to avoid a confrontation. “I’m just going to get pictures of him, and see what car he goes to, get pictures of the car, and I’m going to report it to police.”

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Both Owen and Byrd said police responded inside of five minutes. After talking with an officer, Byrd headed to work.

“At that point,” Byrd said, “I had lost my appetite.”

But before he left, he got a big hug from Owen.

“I gave him the biggest hug in the whole world,” she said.

Officers stopped Fry’s truck a short time later in the area of Market and Tate streets.

Police asked Byrd to leave work and see if he could identify Fry. Byrd said he recognized his face and his truck, but told officers to check his fingernails.

He painted his fingernails “like rainbow colors, so it was like a different color for each day of the week,” Byrd said.

Fry was arrested and charged with kidnapping and taking indecent liberties with a child. He is in the Guilford County jail on a $300,000 secured bail.

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According to court records, Fry has been previously diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a mental health condition that can include symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, as well as mania and depression.

A judge signed an order for a mental evaluation to determine Fry’s competency to stand trial.

As for the little girl, Owen said the 8-year-old is “her sweet little spunky self. She doesn’t seem to understand what this man’s intentions were.”

Greensboro police spokesman Ron Glenn praised Byrd’s actions.

“The gentlemen who stepped up and assisted in this prevented a far worse incident from happening,” he said. “He was willing to help out and was able to act quickly enough to take photos and get this gentlemen apprehended in a short amount of time.”

In a statement, Biscuitville President Kathie Niven also praised Byrd.

It read in part: “Biscuitville takes the safety of our guests very seriously. ... While we can’t always control the actions of others, it is critical that businesses, communities and neighbors play an active role in reporting and reacting to suspicious activity. We join Ms. Owen in being extremely grateful to the good samaritan at Biscuitville who stepped up to address the situation.”

Charlotte Byrd said she’s proud of her son. But his actions also gave her pause.

“I was glad that he saved the girl, but then I was ‘Oh, man. What if that man had a gun or a knife?” she said.

She describes her son as humble and laid back, but always observant.

“He’s pretty much always been aware of his surroundings, even as a small child,” she said. “I’m proud of the man he became. He’s still my baby, but I look at him as a man now.”

Dr. Clay Gloster Jr., dean of the graduate college at A&T, met Byrd while a guest speaker at his church, Metropolitan United Methodist Church. He encouraged him to come to his office to talk about getting his master’s degree.

It surprised him when Byrd showed up.

“He seemed to be motivated. I think in higher ed, we can’t teach motivation. Motivation and grit are things that are unique to him,” Gloster said.

Reflecting on the situation, Byrd said: “You never think you’ll find yourself in one of those situations, so when it does happen it’s like an initial shock — pushed into a fight or flight situation. What are you going to do? How are you going to react?

“It was really like just on-the-fly decision making.”


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An interesting article in today's newspaper

Report: Underfunded and understaffed, the IRS is struggling to serve millions of taxpayers. Page B3


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N.C. GOP promotes 'incredible strides' in education. Report says things have worsened.

RALEIGH — North Carolina Republican lawmakers say they have transformed the state’s education system in the past decade. But a recently released independent report paints a gloomier picture of the state of public schools.

The report from WestEd, a nonprofit research group, contends that insufficient state funding has contributed to an education system where student achievement is lagging, teacher quality is dropping and many students are being left behind. The report, which was publicly released in December, criticizes several of the education changes that the General Assembly has made since Republicans gained the majority in 2011.

“Cutbacks that began during the Great Recession, beginning in 2008, and much deeper legislative cuts over the last few years have eliminated or greatly reduced many of the programs put in place during the 1990s, and this has begun to undermine the quality and equity gains that were previously made,” according to the report.

Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, defended the GOP’s record, saying the state has made “incredible strides in education” since 2011. She said the report’s criticisms “fall flat” because the authors didn’t reach out to lawmakers or their education experts.

“It is impossible to get a comprehensive look at education funding and policy in the state without talking directly to the people who create the laws and allocate the money,” Horsch said in a statement Monday. “It seems to me that it’s awfully difficult to credibly analyze policy choices without ever speaking to the people who made those choices.”

A judge will use the report to help resolve the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit’s efforts to ensure North Carolina public school students receive the state constitutional guarantee of a “sound basic education.”

Here are some of the issues raised in the WestEd report.

Public school funding

The state’s K-12 education budget in 2018-19 was nearly $2 billion larger than in 2011-12, according to House Speaker Tim Moore in a Dec. 31 news release. He says Republicans have increased public school spending an average of 3.3% a year over the past decade.

Moore also points to how North Carolina’s average teacher salary has jumped 18 spots since 2014 to 29th nationally. The state has the third-highest teacher pay raise in the nation over the past five years and an overall 20% pay increase over that time, according to Horsch.

But WestEd says that when adjusted to 2018 dollars, per-pupil spending in North Carolina has declined about 6% since 2009 — 10. The report also says that, based on 2017 dollars, average salaries for the state’s teachers that year were lower than compared to 2003 or 2009.

This level of education funding, according to the report, has led to problems such as fewer teachers employed, “stagnating salaries” and “underfunded” high-poverty schools.

“They try to address it, but unfortunately, funding is not there — that’s what we are told,” an unnamed middle school teacher says in the report. “For instance ... we don’t have textbooks, we need to make copies of reading selections to teach those kids. We only get, like, 1,500 copies per nine weeks. ... (W)e (use) our own money, we have to buy cartridges for our printers to print this.”

WestEd recommends increasing education funding by $8 billion over the next eight years. The report also recommends setting a goal of moving North Carolina to the national average salary for teachers by 2030.

Quality of teachers

In the 1990s, WestEd says North Carolina had virtually eliminated teacher shortages and had the greatest gains in student achievement. Since then, the report says the state has gone from “having a very highly qualified teaching force” to “one that is extremely uneven.”

WestEd points to factors such as how the legislature ended the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program in 2011 before bringing it back in a smaller way in 2017. The program provides scholarships to students who agree to become teachers.

Horsch defended the program’s redesign, which focused on the hard-to-hire subjects of science, technology, engineering, math and special education.

The report also points to cuts in state funding for training and support of teachers. As a consequence of the various changes, the report says disadvantaged students have less access to experienced and effective teachers.

“North Carolina can never succeed in providing a sound basic education for its children without vastly improved systems and approaches for recruiting, preparing, supporting, developing, and retaining teachers and for placing highly effective teachers where they are most needed to foster the academic growth of at-risk students,” the report says.

“The current teacher shortages and high turnover — particularly in high-poverty schools — are a function of uneven preparation and mentoring, inadequate compensation, and poor working conditions.”

Low-performing schools

In 2017, state lawmakers switched from paying principals based on their years of experience to a new system that gives them bonuses based on how their students do on exams. Since 2016, principals have received an average 23.4% increase in pay, according to Horsch.

But WestEd says the new system means what principals make can vary from year to year. The report says this creates a disincentive for effective principals to work in underperforming schools, which often take more than one year to improve.

The report cites other changes, such as no longer paying principals for advanced degrees and not providing them — or any other state employees hired after Jan. 1, 2021 — with health benefits when they retire. WestEd says these changes make leading small and low-performing schools less attractive.

WestEd recommends revising the compensation system. If the authors had talked to lawmakers, Horsch said they would have learned about a new program to give up to $30,000 a year to qualified principals to relocate to low-performing schools.

For the past several years, lawmakers have ordered millions of dollars in budget cuts at the state Department of Public Instruction. Some of the deepest cuts have come in the division that works with the state’s lowest-performing schools.

WestEd says low-performing districts and schools are getting less support than they did in 2015. The state Department of Public Instruction is making changes in how it supports schools, but the report says the agency doesn’t have the capacity to support a large number of low-performing schools.

The report recommends rebuilding DPI’s ability to support low-performing schools.

Grading schools

Since the 2013-14 school year, every North Carolina public school has received an A through F grade based largely on how many of its students passed state exams. But WestEd says basing the grading system on passing rates is biased and unfair because research shows high-poverty schools don’t do as well academically. The report says the letter grades have made it even more difficult for high-poverty schools to attract high-quality teachers.

“Focusing primarily on achievement to evaluate school performance biases the evaluation system against schools that serve large percentages of economically disadvantaged students and rewards schools with wealthier populations,” the report says.

WestEd recommends revising how schools are held accountable. Lawmakers passed a bill giving State Superintendent Mark Johnson and the State Board of Education until February to suggest potential changes to the grading system.

Charter school effects

Lawmakers lifted the cap on the number of charter schools in 2011 and are now providing vouchers to help families attend private schools. Now 20% of the state’s students attend charter schools, private schools or are homeschooled instead of attending a public school.

“We’ll continue to support a parent’s power to choose the right school for their children — whether it be a public school or a charter school,” Horsch said. “Enrollment in charter schools continues to increase, and thanks to the state’s Opportunity Scholarships, families have a chance to send their kids to private school if they so choose.”

But WestEd says these policies “contribute to the effects of cumulative disadvantage” in high-poverty traditional public schools. The report says the loss of students to charter schools is costing school districts funding while leaving them with fixed costs, such as paying for buildings and transportation.

“In effect, charter schools can reduce the amount of funds available to (high poverty schools) through a loss of per-pupil allocations and district expenses for their operations,” the report says.

The report confirms what public school advocates have been saying for the past decade, according to Kris Nordstrom, senior policy analyst for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.

“This General Assembly is moving the state in the wrong direction,” Nordstrom said. “It’s nice that an outside panel of experts has confirmed what folks like the Justice Center, the Public School Forum have said all along.”

But Terry Stoops, vice present of research for the John Locke Foundation, argues that WestEd paints a picture of North Carolina doing a poor job educationally in order to justify the massive recommended funding increases.

“Certainly North Carolina should do everything in its power to improve schools,” Stoops said. “But a universal condemnation of the public schools in North Carolina in the report suggests they’re not looking at specific instantiates where schools with large numbers of low-income students are succeeding.

“They’re not looking, I believe, at charter schools that are creating excellent educational opportunities for kids.”