Bipartisan bill eases school calendar

By: By Gary D. Robertson - Associated Press

RALEIGH — In a rare show of bipartisanship, the North Carolina legislature quickly approved Tuesday legislation described as financial and policy down payments on what’s expected to be a long, expensive recovery from Hurricane Florence.

Included in the bill is dropping a requirement for minimum classtime, something local school officials have said they need.

Barely two weeks after the storm’s last rains left the state, the Republican-controlled General Assembly unanimously backed a pair of bills in a special session called by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who was expected to sign them.

More than 30 inches of rain fell in some parts of the state, and along with the storm surge, caused historic widespread flooding that damaged tens of thousands of homes and other buildings. As much as 22 inches of rain fell in some parts of Robeson County, and the Lumber River crested at between 25.3 and 25.5 feet, leaving large swaths of Robeson County under water. Authorities have confirmed 39 storm-related deaths, two in Robeson. The damage is estimated to reach billions of dollars, including at least $1.1 billion in crop and livestock losses.

Nearly two years of rancor between the executive and legislative branches have led to a record number of vetoes and overrides and extensive litigation. But Cooper and legislative leaders have found likely temporary amity and teamwork in the face of Florence.

“The cooperation that I’ve seen has also been unprecedented and we need to keep that spirit of cooperation all together as we approach the short- and long-term recovery from this storm,” Cooper told the Council of State shortly before the session convened. His office and GOP legislators had conferred on Tuesday’s legislation before leaders opened the session.

One bill would take from the state’s $2 billion reserve about $57 million, most of which could be used to provide the state’s match to federal disaster assistance programs. A preliminary federal package that would send over $1 billion to the state is working its way through Congress.

“The people in Southeastern North Carolina need this bill. They need every dime that’s been allocated in this bill,” said Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican during floor debate.

Britt is a National Guard member who had a high-profile role in his region’s storm response.

The bill also extends traditional voter registration by three days to give some more time to displaced residents. Another piece of legislation will ease public school calendar rules so schools in nearly 30 eastern counties hardest hit by Florence could be forgiven up to 20 instructional days and still meet requirements in state law. Schools in other areas would get a smaller break.

Eight school districts instructing more than 100,000 students still have yet to return to classes since before Florence’s landfall as a hurricane on Sept. 14, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said. Some will never go back to their classrooms — two Jones County schools inundated by floodwaters will have to be demolished.

Robeson County’s public schools have been closed to students since Sept. 12. Complicating their return to the classroom are schools used as emergency shelters that need to be cleaned before students can use them. At one point in Florence’s wake Lumberton, Purnell Swett, South Robeson, Red Springs and St. Pauls high schools and Fairmont Middle School were used for shelters, as was Bill Sapp Recreation Center in Lumberton.

During the school board meeting Tuesday, it was said a definite return date could be known next week. Air-quality tests have to be done at all the schools before students can return.

“There is an incredibly amount of uncertainty in our lives,” said Sen. Michael Lee, a Republican from Wilmington, where school will resume later this week. He said the school legislation, which also makes clear employees will get paid without using personal leave when classes are cancelled, will “provide some semblance of certainty for families, children, teachers and those who are working in the school system.”

Tuesday’s one-day session — lawmakers will return Oct. 15 to consider more specific funding and policy requests from Cooper and his agencies — wasn’t without some division. The House defeated on a largely party-line vote a Democratic amendment that would have allowed county election boards to move early-voting sites with support from just a majority of board members. The final bill requires unanimous board approval.

Otherwise, the General Assembly’s debate was marked by empathy for the storm’s victims. Lawmakers shared storm stories and praised first responders who watched the session from the galleries.

“It’s always good to see partisanship and some of the crazy divisions that we allow ourselves to get into get put aside for everybody to work together to try to move things forward,” House Speaker Tim Moore told colleagues. “We’re all people and we owe a duty to each other to take care of one another.”


By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

Editor Donnie Douglas contributed to this report.

Editor Donnie Douglas contributed to this report.