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N.C. budget earmarks millions for water, parks projects in GOP legislative districts, including Berger’s

RALEIGH — Millions of dollars in North Carolina’s yet-to-be-adopted state budget are earmarked to go to mostly Republican districts for water infrastructure and parks projects. While Republicans defend the allocations as needed help to rural areas, an environmental group questions the process and oversight.

The N.C. Conservation Network analyzed the budget for fiscal year 2019-20 and found that 91% of $25 million in parks and water infrastructure earmarks went to Republican districts. Most were in N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger’s district, which includes Eden, Yanceyville and King.

As first reported by WBTV, the Conservation Network found that about $23.4 million in direct appropriations, known as earmarks, went to Republican-held Senate districts, and within that a $15 million loan to the city of King in Berger’s district.

Republicans who control the General Assembly House and Senate and wrote the budget, are currently in a standoff with Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

Grady McCallie, the Conservation Network’s policy director, said Friday that the environmental organization has been following the state budget for years and earmarks have been “creeping up.”

Rather than going through a competitive grant process for parks and water projects, direct appropriations don’t have the same kind of oversight for each project, McCallie said.

Berger spokesman Pat Ryan said rural areas have sewer systems that are in the worst shape and have the least ability to fix them, and most rural areas are represented by Republicans.

“A lot of these communities are relatively poor, and don’t have the tax base like Wake or Mecklenburg to overhaul sewer systems,” Ryan said Friday, referring to two of North Carolina’s most populous counties.

“The fact is, a lot of the rural towns request state funding for things they just cannot afford themselves,” he said, and that includes parks projects.

Meanwhile, Cooper recently announced $112 million in water projects .

The State Water Infrastructure Authority approved loans for 26 drinking water and wastewater projects across North Carolina, including almost $800,000 to Murphy for sewer-system repairs, $1.1 million to Manteo to move its pump station and $22.5 million to Fayetteville for sewer work.

Cooper said in a statement that the loans for water infrastructure projects were based on greatest need.

“To close the remaining funding gaps, I have proposed an education and water bond in this year’s budget so that more town and counties can get the foundation they need to grow and attract jobs,” Cooper said.

The $112 million came from the state’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan programs.

McCallie said the earmark projects should go through that process, too.

“There’s a better structure in place,” he said. “I would be equally skeptical if 91% (of projects) were in Democratic districts.”

McCallie said he hopes earmarks are part of the overall negotiations on the new state budget.

So far, budget negotiations between Cooper and the Republican Berger haven’t been going well.

Both the House and Senate have yet to vote on overriding Cooper’s June 28 veto of the General Assembly’s compromise budget.

The Associated Press  

Phil Berger

Ignite Summer Camp brings more choices for Guilford County Schools students

Sheriyn Flores labels the parts on an insect she painted in the “Citizen Science” session at Ignite Summer Camp.

Tamerika McLaughin studies the instructions to make a Lego robot during camp on July 18. The Lego robotics class is one of the new parts of a dramatic expansion and combination of Guilford County Schools summer camps this year.

GREENSBORO — With darting fingers, rising fourth-grader Isaiah Sierra tried to poke past his tiny “goalie” robot, testing for weaknesses in the defensive movement pattern he had programmed for it to block a miniature soccer goal.

The Lego robotics class he took recently is one of the new parts of a dramatic expansion and combination of Guilford County Schools summer camps this year.

In the past, the school system has emphasized a few major, separate camps that students could take part in: one for elementary reading help for invited students, one for the arts and one for rising high school freshmen who are academically gifted. The camps took place in different places at different times, and for different amounts of time; families had to sign up for everything separately. This year the school system has pulled those camps together under one umbrella and added a bunch of new offerings. School officials hope about 3,000 students will have taken part by the end of summer break.

Basically, the Ignite Summer Camp is designed to be a sort of one-stop shop for families. Camp began June 17 and runs through Aug. 12, with the option to register for a variety of offerings each week through the summer. It’s open to all grades, but has the most options and participation in the later elementary school through early high school ages, according to Nathan Street, the school system’s director of fine arts. Students can choose to try out arts, sports, science and technology, history, and more. Students from various special-needs programs in the school system are participating as well.

It’s all free, with the exception of some arts offerings, and even those have full scholarships for families that need them. Registration for this year is closed, but the school system expects to do it again next year, with some tweaks and changes.

Street, who had experience with the arts camp, brought the idea for the Ignite Summer Camp to Whitney Oakley, the assistant superintendent for teaching, learning and professional development.

Oakley said the idea looked attractive, especially because it offered a chance to change a few aspects of the reading camp.

The state of North Carolina requires school systems to offer a free Read to Achieve camp for rising second-, third- and fourth-grade students who score below certain thresholds on their state reading tests.

The idea is to help students catch up so they do better in reading.

Statewide, Oakley said, reading results from the camps have been inconclusive. She said Guilford is seeing some improvement from holding the camps, but not a “significant” amount, and definitely not as much as it would like.

Nationally, the recommended duration for such programs is at least six weeks, Oakley said. Guilford County Schools only receives enough money to run its reading camp for 12 days.

By uniting and centralizing camps, school officials are able to offer four weeks of Read to Achieve, she said.

Another issue has been getting students to attend the reading camps.

“What we have noticed in the past several years is only a small percentage of the students that qualify for Read to Achieve summer programming actually attend,” she said.

School officials said they face other issues to participation.

Parents say they need full-day care for their children, so a part-day camp like Read to Achieve is problematic. Some children struggling with reading may not want to spend their summer practicing more reading. And Street pointed out that under state rules, the invitations for the camps don’t go out until after state tests, so many families may already have plans for the summer.

Leaders are hopeful that the Ignite Summer Camp could help on at least the first two issues.

Students participating in Read to Achieve at the Ignite Camp read in the morning, but in the afternoon get to pick from among a bevy of special activities, such as Lego robotics.

Students being picked up by a parent can stay as late as 6 p.m. Those who ride the bus get to participate in one afternoon activity before leaving by 3:30 p.m. Those who stay later can choose a second Ignite Summer class. Previously, Read to Achieve Camp ran from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

School officials said they hope the wide variety of classes and activities for afternoon sessions will make students invited to Read to Achieve more excited about coming.

Oakley and Street said there have definitely been some struggles and lessons with the new Ignite Summer Camp, everything from registration to transportation.

Oakley said one or more main sites need to be in the Greensboro area next year. The camp sites were clustered in Jamestown and High Point this year.

In the Read to Achieve programs alone, about 700 students participated in the first week, which Oakley said seemed on par with the first week of the program last year.

During a recent lunch at the camp, the Ragsdale High cafeteria in Jamestown was filled with campers waiting to head to the first round of afternoon classes. Teachers walked in with giant poster board signs for “African Dance,” “Arts Exploration,” “Citizen Science,” “Spanish” and “Local History,” among other options.

Isaiah waited at a table with his counselor and the 10 other students from his Read to Achieve class.

For Isaiah, the activities, and Lego robotics in particular, have been the best part of camp. His classmate, Simeon Libby, said he likes the reading best. He talked about being in the middle of a book called “Andy Shane and the Queen of Eqypt.”

There’s a lot going on in the cafeteria, but Kathy Thompson, their counselor, said that the transitions have been pretty straightforward. Every camper also has a name tag that lists on the back where they are supposed to be at any given time, so that helps, too, she said.

Isaiah’s Lego robotics instructor was a woman in a Harry Potter T-shirt named Patrila Hardy, who works as a third-grade teacher for the school system during the regular school year. She showed the class video clips from the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament for a little “current events” tie-in, and then set students to work building and programming soccer-related robots using special Lego-brand pieces, motors and software programs.

Isaiah’s partner wasn’t there, so he worked by himself, and earned a chance to demonstrate his goalie robot to the other children who crowded around.

“Great job!” said Hardy, as Isaiah smiled up at her and accepted a high-five.

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North Carolina trial into partisan gerrymandering wraps up

RALEIGH — A North Carolina trial that concluded Friday leaves state judges to decide whether they can identify when politicians go too far in drawing voting districts to their advantage, a judgment the U.S. Supreme Court refused to make.

A three-judge panel will likely spend weeks digesting testimony laid out over two weeks during which Democrats and their allies argued legislative districts violate the state constitution by so favoring Republicans that elections were largely predetermined.

“In 2002, the North Carolina Supreme Court said that every voter in North Carolina had the fundamental right to cast his and her ballot on equal terms,” plaintiff’s attorney Eddie Speas said at a news conference. “If you’ve been here the past two week, you’ve heard over and over and over that the voters of North Carolina do not have the right to cast their ballots on equal terms.”

But lawyers for the lobbying group Common Cause, the state Democratic Party and more than 30 registered Democratic voters who sued over the legislative maps failed to show how judges or anyone else would know if maps drawn to partisan advantage have gone too far, Republican attorney Phil Strach said.

“What exactly is a partisan gerrymander?” Strach wrote in prepared closing remarks. “The plaintiffs ask this court to ‘fix’ so-called gerrymandering but won’t tell the court what gerrymandering is. The evidence is that there is nothing to fix. Democrats have the resources and the ability to slug it out with Republicans in the political process.”

A ruling is expected in weeks or months. The losing side is expected to appeal the decision.

The trial came a month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a separate case involving North Carolina’s congressional map that it’s not the job of federal courts to decide if boundaries are politically unfair. But Chief Justice John Roberts also wrote in the decision that state courts could play a role by applying standards set in state laws and constitutions to the question of gerrymandering, or arranging election districts in ways that gives one party an unfair advantage.

If the judges rule in favor of Democrats and their allies, they could order new district maps for next year’s elections to the state’s General Assembly. The lawmakers winning those elections will draw up maps after the 2020 census that are intended to last for the following decade, again influencing political power in the country’s ninth-largest state.

The plaintiffs also want judges to define when partisan advantage goes too far and diminishes democracy.

A political scientist testifying for the Republican defendants said the North Carolina districts being challenged fall within the norms of redistricting, which almost always favor the interests of the majority party. The challenged districts are not such extreme outliers that judges should intervene, said University of Texas at Dallas professor Thomas Brunell.

A state constitutional requirement to keep counties as whole as possible when drawing legislative districts makes North Carolina redistricting more complicated than in most states, he said.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on,” said Brunell, who wrote a book arguing that voters would be more satisfied with Congress if electoral districts were less competitive and stuffed with like-minded voters who’ve picked winners.

Brigham Young University political scientist Michael Barber testified for Republicans that Democrats promote unintentional gerrymandering by clustering around cities in the largely rural state.

The lawsuit contends that 95 out of the 170 House and Senate districts drawn in 2017 violate the plaintiffs’ free speech and association protections under the state constitution. They also say the boundaries violate a constitutional provision stating “all elections shall be free,” because the maps are rigged to predetermine electoral outcomes and virtually ensure Republican control of the legislature.

A partisan gerrymandering lawsuit in Pennsylvania citing a similar provision in that state’s constitution was successful.

Despite a large party fundraising advantage during the 2018 cycle and candidates in nearly every legislative race, Democrats could not win a majority in either the House or Senate, a failure Democrats and their allies blame on gerrymandering.

Among the evidence the judges will consider are uncovered computer records created by Tom Hofeller, a now-dead GOP redistricting guru who helped draw the 2017 legislative maps. Those files — collected by Hofeller’s estranged daughter after his death and shared with Common Cause — “prove beyond a doubt that partisan gain was his singular objective,” plaintiffs attorney Stanton Jones said last week.

Some of Hofeller’s files ended up being used in separate litigation in New York challenging a plan by President Donald Trump’s administration to include a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. census.

The North Carolina lawsuit marks at least the eighth lawsuit challenging state election district maps since the current round of redistricting began in 2011. The lawsuits resulted in redrawing congressional lines in 2016 and legislative districts in 2017 — both to address racial bias.