North Carolina General Assembly Week in Review

September 9, 2022

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North Carolina News Roundup

The North Carolina Board of Elections ruled last Friday to reverse the decision of the Currituck County Board of Elections who previously found that there was sufficient evidence to question the residency of Valerie Jordan, the Democratic nominee for Senate District 3. In a split decision along party lines, the state board allowed Jordan to remain on the ballot, agreeing that she resides in Warren County, one of the counties included in Senate District 3. Barring any successful court challenge, Jordan will face Senator Bobby Hanig (R-Currituck) in November.

Democratic Governor Roy Cooper appointed two new members to the North Carolina Board of Transportation, who were then sworn in at this week’s board meeting. Merrie Jo Alcoke, an environmental lawyer who previously worked in the Attorney General’s office, will represent District 2. Meagan Phillips, a real estate developer from Boone, will represent District 11.

Education Oversight Committee

The Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee met Tuesday for a lengthy four-hour meeting chaired by Senator Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga). Tuesday’s meeting covered multiple topics including presentations about existing contracts, successful school district programs, and data analysis from state agencies. Alexis Shauss, Chief Financial Officer at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), fielded many questions from lawmakers following her presentation on instructional support hirings and programs across the state in 2022. The 2021 state budget allocated $44 million to fund school psychologists in each school district and provided additional funds for additional instructional support positions like audiologists, guidance counselors, and nurses. Schauss emphasized that it was purely a financial presentation, but could also tell a narrative about how school districts supplement salaries for those positions, like from at-risk fund allotments for some districts.

Dr. Andrew Smith, Assistant Superintendent of the Office of Innovation at DPI, presented on the competency-based model being pursued by DPI, and the roadmap moving forward. The State Board of Education and senior leadership at DPI have pursued experiments with competency-based education since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when most students transitioned to online learning. Competency based education emphasizes personalized learning, which is implemented differently by different schools, but generally includes reforming grading systems and the way students receive feedback on their progress. Smith, and other members of his program, credited overtime hours by the teachers involved, and strong parental involvement, for the most successful implementations of competency-based education programs.

Lastly, Trip Stallings, Executive Director of the Department of Information Technology Longitudinal Data System (NCLDSD), provided an overview of what his office does and the impact of their work. The purview of the office is to oversee the safe and efficient exchange of data between state agencies. In 2021, several agencies and the university and community college systems signed a memorandum agreeing to an outlined system of data sharing, and earlier this year Governor Cooper established the NCLDS to facilitate further opportunities. In response to questions from lawmakers about the technical aspects of how his office does what they do without threatening security, Stallings said his office focuses on building out systems and contracts based on how agencies prefer their data to be protected.

Information Technology Oversight Committee

Legislators heard from senior members of North Carolina’s Department of Information Technology (DIT) at the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Information Technology meeting Thursday morning. DIT Secretary James Weaver, who was confirmed just last year, and Nate Denny, Deputy Secretary for Broadband and Digital Equity, provided the committee updates on organizational changes Secretary Weaver has made since his confirmation and on the progress of broadband infrastructure expansion throughout the state.

Once confirmed as the head of the department, Secretary Weaver reworked DIT’s Statewide IT Strategic Plan with a goal to enable trusted business-driven solutions that meet the needs of North Carolinians with a focus on broadband and connectivity, cybersecurity and privacy, and digital transformation. DIT’s strategic plan is comprised of five major statewide goals, including fostering a connected North Carolina to improve opportunities and outcomes for all residents, transforming the delivery of services, optimizing and securing the state’s IT and application portfolios, promoting an inclusive and innovative workforce, and leveraging data assets and analytics to further advance a data-driven government. In his comments to the committee, Secretary Weaver emphasized the department’s effort to move more quickly and efficiently and provide the proper accountability and oversight to other state entities and agencies, while recognizing that there important cultural changes being made as well.

Over the last few legislative sessions, the General Assembly has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars from both state and federal funds to expand broadband infrastructure through the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grant program. The program provides grants to private broadband service providers to connect rural counties and census tracts to broadband. Nate Denny confirmed that in 2022 alone, 92 GREAT grants have been awarded, with a total match amount of nearly $267 million.

Senator Todd Johnson (R-Union) questioned the timeline that grant awardees have to complete their projects, to which Denny confirmed that for all awarded grants, the provider has two years to turn on service for their designated area. This will likely not be the last time that DIT will be in front of the General Assembly. Another Union County legislator, Republican Dean Arp, who has championed broadband infrastructure appropriations over the last several years, requested a complete recap of all funds for broadband and high speed internet, in addition to the GREAT dollars. In last year’s state budget, legislators created the Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) program to appropriate up to $4 million to each county to identify high-need areas and develop a competitive bid process for broadband providers.

House Committee on Women in STEM

The newly chartered House Select Committee on Advancing Women in STEM met this week for just the second time. The committee, chaired by Representative Erin Paré (R-Wake), was established by Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) to “study issues related to developing future generations of women leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).” In late August, the committee met on the SAS Campus in Cary to hear from a panel of female business leaders in the technology and life sciences field.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the committee met in the General Assembly, and received reports from senior staff within the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), Community Colleges, UNC System, and North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. Jamey Falkenbury, Director of Government Affairs at DPI, presented on trends in technology and education affecting women in the workforce. Falkenbury credited a surge in computer science interest, aided in part by funding by the General Assembly for grants and positions to accelerate computer science studies, for the reason North Carolina has seen an uptick in new technology companies relocating to the state. Falkenbury shared that at least half of all school districts in the state now offer at least one advanced computer science course and identified districts where professional development is working when adequately funded. Lastly, Falkenbury credited the legislature with identifying innovative STEM programs for classrooms, like Plasma Games, BetaBox, and mobile grant development programs, for improving access to applicable computer science skills. He closed by asking the legislature to allow computer science to count as a credit in all districts, not just with AP courses, and to provide increased salary and stipends for teachers who are proficient in computer science and who teach STEM-related courses.

Both Dr. Lisa Eads, Associate Vice President of Programs at the NC Community Colleges System Office, and Dr. David English, Acting Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina System, provided the committee with snapshots of the status of women in STEM programs. Eads’s presentation pointed out that females are a majority in most STEM programs, including as many as 88% female enrollment numbers for health science, and 73% in finance programs at statewide community colleges. All fields of STEM saw increases in female enrollment; medical sonography programs saw the largest increase of women at a 110% growth since 2019. English’s presentation echoed many of the same findings. Female growth in STEM degrees has outpaced male growth, and since 2010, female bachelor’s degrees in STEM have increased by 66%, compared to 48% for males. Both speakers credited a climate shift in leadership within each system to invest more time and resources in STEM programs and involvement of women. Dr. Laura Bottomley, from NC State, spoke alongside Dr. English and credited the creation of new industry partnerships, and female leadership positions within departments, with encouraging women to remain in and graduate from STEM programs.

Upcoming Legislative Meetings

Monday, September 12
5:00PM: House Select Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future (Public Hearing)

Wednesday, September 15
9:00AM: Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery

Thursday, September 16
1:00PM: Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety