Last week was a bit like living in the Twilight Zone. After months of being told to wait, we finally got a glimmer of hope from the Governor. He went on T.V. with Dr. Mandy Cohen and told North Carolinians that virus numbers had stabilized. The pair gave the green light to open all elementary schools in North Carolina. They said that the science supported the decision.
But the Cumberland County Board of Education answered the Governor with a 6-3 “NO” vote and through a spokesperson said they would not revisit their decision. Cumberland County Schools would remain closed through 2020.
Several days later, I’m left wondering how this happened. It’s baffling. I thought we were following the science? Did the dimmer switch break?
I’ve developed a few political theories in an effort to make sense of it all, but unlike the Cumberland County School Board, I’m not ready to have “virtual” science for the rest of 2020. So what follows is a mix of politics and science in an attempt to shine some light on this debacle.
The Fayetteville Observer, in an editorial that half-way supported the board’s decision, had this to say:
Like elsewhere, the virus has had a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. Based on cases where the race is known, 61 percent of people who have died from COVID-19 in our county have been Black, in a county where Blacks make up 39 percent of the population.
These are among considerations the school board had to take into account in a school system which has a majority-minority student body.
I expected a bit more from our paper. This is the one time that race should have been left out of the conversation. A virus doesn’t care about your skin tone. However, you are more likely to catch one if you’re poor and live in a crowded home with working-class parents. This is a socio-economic problem, plain and simple.
Maybe our paper was only reflecting the “true spirit” of Fayetteville’s politics, where race always simmers under the surface, waiting for a chance to boil over. Here’s a relevant flashback from four years ago:
The Cumberland County Board of Education begins the new year with new leadership, and not everyone is happy about it. Rather than follow tradition, school board members voted 5-4 to elect Greg West as chairman, rather than current vice chairperson Carrie Sutton.
“I’m just shocked,” Sutton said. “I’ve worked on this board for eight years, and never have I been in a situation like this…this is so racial.”
“All I can say is, you are wrong,” West said, responding to Sutton’s claims of racially-motivated voting. Board members Peggy Hall, Rudy Tatum, Donna Vann and Susan Williams supported West, who voted for himself. Alicia Chisholm, Porcha McMillan and Judy Musgrave supported Sutton, who voted for herself. West served as chairman most recently in 2014. During the public comments portion of the meeting about a third of the people in the room asked the board to choose Sutton as chairwoman.
Unsurprisingly, the School Board’s recent vote fell along nearly identical lines. Did this vote become a racial issue? Was it a personal grudge against Greg West (who supports re-opening)? It’s hard to tell.
The point is that racial tension and mistrust are poison to the process of making a reasoned decision. The Nation, City, and School Board are full of both right now.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen a generational divide in how we treat the virus.
This makes sense. If you’re old, you’re far more likely to die of Covid. You’re also less likely to empathize with families that are going through the hell that is “virtual” school because no such thing existed when you were raising your own children.
The local science regarding age is worth mentioning here:
75 people have died with Covid in Cumberland County so far. 80% of the deaths have been people over the age of 65.
No one under the age of 25 has died with Covid in Cumberland County.
The majority of the members of our school board are “getting up there” in age. It may be that the six school board members who voted “no” are worried that in-person school will spread Covid in Cumberland County and they have personal fears of Covid due to their age or health history.
If these fears exist, they are irrational. Dozens of counties have already gone back to school. I argued in a post several weeks ago that we would know within “2-14 days” if in-person school increased Covid transmission because we would see a spike in these counties:
We saw no spike. In fact, Dr. Mandy Cohen went on T.V. last week and said there has been “no increase in community spread” in counties with in-person education. But in politics, fear beats reason, every time. I have a hunch the 6-3 vote would have been different if we had a younger school board.
Teachers “Union” Calling the Shots?
The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) is a political organization that advocates for teachers in North Carolina. The group organized the rallies in Raleigh promoting higher teacher pay that made national news. Remember all those red shirts?
The NCAE is against opening schools:
At an emergency town hall meeting Thursday night, NCAE leaders told the 1,000 virtual attendees that Cooper’s decision endangers students and school employees. Bryan Proffitt, NCAE’s vice president, said they’re now being “forced to fight against our principals, our school boards and our school district administrators” to keep schools from adopting Plan A.
“I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that the strategy has to be that we have to fight locally,” Proffitt said. “You are going to have to push your school board. The decision is now in the hands of school boards. It is not in the governor’s hands anymore, he relinquished that today.”
“It is in the hands of school boards so we are going to have to push our school boards for the safest possible conditions, and if that means you’ve got seven people on your school board, you’ve got to get four people to vote the way you want.”
Unsurprisingly, Sorce has aligned his position with his stepdaughter and the NCAE, voting to keep schools virtual for the rest of the year. Other school board members have used “teacher safety” as their primary motivation for voting against opening, now that Cooper’s “science” supports having elementary schools open.
In Charlotte, a lawsuit was recently filed to open schools. The NCAE was named as a Defendant. The suit accuses the NCAE of being an illegal public union and conspiring with school board members to advance its agenda of keeping schools closed. Here’s a link to the Complaint, if you’re interested in reading it:
The NCAE wants this to be a partisan fight. Notice how the NCAE VP simply brushed off Governor Cooper by arguing that he “relinquished” control of the decision. This comes after Tamika Kelly publicly admonished Trump for “not following the science” and wanting to open schools a few weeks before (see the video above).
It’s hard to avoid the fact that we have a powerful special interest group representing teachers in North Carolina that clearly has the ear of local school boards. They won the battle in Cumberland County.
Hate Trumps All?
I’d be remised not to mention the orange elephant in the room. Partisanship and hatred for Donald Trump is a primary motivation for many who oppose open schools. It just is. It’s in Trump’s interest to re-open the country as fast as possible, including schools.
I have a hard time with this one, because I think Donald Trump is a horrible President, but I’m in favor of my two children going back to the classroom. Show me some science that says my kids aren’t safe. I’ll change my mind and publish a retraction.
It’s this writer’s opinion that members of the Cumberland County Board of Education are “caught up” in a fight that is bigger than the decision to send kids back to school in Cumberland County. It’s a political fight being waged on multiple fronts that has lasted all of 2020.
In a tumultuous election year, it’s easier to get caught up in national issues of race, or political party, or Donald Trump. It’s harder to look at the facts and the data in your little county and make a reasoned decision.
The right thing is simple: Put your political agenda aside. Put our children first.
If you live in Cumberland County and have kids in public schools, you certainly have strong feelings about whether they should return to the classroom. I’ve advocated for a return for several months. You may disagree, but I think everyone believes that the decision should be made on clear science. A flawed system may keep that from happening.
Our school board is currently laying the bureaucratic groundwork to keep our kids at home for the foreseeable future. Their tool: a system of metrics that measure the “covid risk level” in Cumberland County.
The above graphic is taken from a youtube video of the school board’s last virtual meeting. Many of these graphics are blurry screenshots. Apologies, I can’t find the actual charts online. You can watch the video below for clearer images:
The covid metric spreadsheet appears five minutes into the video. It seems that the county gets “points” for four covid metrics:
Case positivity rate
New cases per capita
Rate of acceleration
Active clusters in last 2 weeks
More points = More Covid. The maximum score is 13.
According to our county leaders, we should have a score of 4 or less before kids can go back to class. We’re currently at a score of 6.
A score of 6 puts us in the “Accelerated Spread” category (Orange).
But look closer. The “rate of acceleration” metric says “14 day deceleration.” It’s green.
So we’re in the “Accelerated Spread” category when our “rate of acceleration” is going down? This is absurd on its face. Covid can’t accelerate and decelerate at the same time. It exists in the universe and there are laws governing such things.
Positivity Rate Wrecking the Metrics
Looking closer, it appears that our phantom “acceleration” comes from our current positivity rate. We received 4 of our 6 points from this category alone. Skip to 16:00 in the youtube video to see how this works.
Under the current system, if Cumberland County’s positivity rate was below 6% (it’s currently 7.7%) we would get 2 points instead of 4, for a total score of 4 points. At 4 points, the “metric system” would recommend that our kids go back to school.
Making this worse is the fact that Cumberland County’s positivity rate jumps around. The reason is that the rate is entirely dependent on the number of tests that are analyzed on a given day. You can use the following link to see that we’ve been as low as 5% and as high as 15% within the past month.
It’s entirely possible that our school board keeps school shut down based on a small percentage of one data point.
Since its the linchpin, we may as well read the data point’s “fine print”:
Description/Data Source: This shows the percent of positive tests as a proportion of total (Electronic Lab Reporting) ELR tests. We know that as testing increases, the number of cases can climb. This gives us an idea of the number of cases with respect to the amount of testing being done. These are only calculated using results from labs that report into NC EDSS electronically, listed below. Thus, this many not be representative if a large amount of tests in Cumberland County are being done by labs not reporting electronically. The percent positive displayed is the average percent positive during the last two weeks. Data in this spreadsheet is updated on Mondays. https:covid19nchdds.gov/dashboard/testing
It “may not be representative” but it “may be” the thing that keeps your kids from going to school. Welcome to 2020!
I think we need to find out if there’s a large number of tests in Cumberland County that aren’t being reported. If so, why are we even using this percentage in our decision making? You might as well pick a random number.
A Way Forward
If we’re going to open schools in Cumberland County, we’ve got to get a new system, or at least give less weight to the “percent positive” number that is admittedly based on incomplete data.
A cynic might say that Governor Cooper, NCDHHS, and County administrators set up these metrics with the goal of keeping schools closed. I’m not quite there yet, but if they don’t fix it, I will be.
Here’s one solution: from the very beginning, we have been told that we needed to “shut down” in order to “slow the spread” and avoid overwhelming our health care system. Remember that? What happened that that data point? Fortunately, it’s still being monitored:
If you go to 36:00 minutes in the video, you will hear Michael Nagowski, the head of Cape Fear Valley Hospital. He notes that the number of covid patients has been cut in half since the peak of the pandemic. He says there are twenty eight people at the medical center that are “also covid positive.” The peak was fifty-seven.
This is consistent with (if not better than) the trend across the state:
The number of individuals hospitalized in Cumberland County for covid should carry as much, if not more weight, than the percentage of positive tests. Hospitalizations are not dependent on the number of tests given or the number of labs electronically reporting results to the state. In fact, hospitalizations, apart from deaths, are the best way to determine the severity of the pandemic in this community. There is no “fine print.”
These types of formulas are wonderful for elected officials. Our leaders can sit back and point to a graph or chart and avoid making a difficult decision themselves. It’s the definition of political “cover.” The problem is that once you get in the weeds, you find that the cover is often a smokescreen.
Remember that the ultimate decision rests with your elected officials, not some contradictory color-coded chart on a blurry youtube video. Hold them accountable.
I’ve been writing critically about the downtown development project in Fayetteville for over two years. The purpose of this post is to pose a solution to an ongoing problem. I hope our city leaders take it seriously. If not, I hope they think of something.
In 2017, the City of Fayetteville entered into a contract with several developers to construct a parking deck, offices, and a hotel downtown. The gist of it was this:
The developers would own land next to the new baseball stadium. The developers would build a parking deck on this land. Offices and a hotel would be constructed on top. Once completed, the city would buy the parking deck structure (at cost) and then lease most of the the spaces back to the developers.
The carrot to the developers was government money.
The carrot to the city was economic development downtown. The city could finance the baseball stadium with the increased property tax revenues that were scheduled to come with the new development. This enabled the city to borrow money without putting a bond referendum on the ballot or raising taxes.
The contract between the city and the developers was amended five times, each time to the advantage of the developers. Often, the cost went up for the taxpayers. Other times, the completion date was pushed back.
Since the beginning, my major complaint with the project was that it was an expenditure of taxpayer dollars without a public purpose. Millions were to be spent to construct a parking facility that was going to be used primarily by private developers. There’s a legal argument to be made that this violates the North Carolina Constitution as well as the “Downtown Development Statute” which states “…the property interests of the local government shall be limited to facilities for a public purpose.”
Maybe that’s all moot now. It’s readily apparent that we aren’t going to get the development that was promised any time soon. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that Hyatt will be constructing a new hotel on a parking deck owned by a municipality on land owned by a development company. This was a stretch in normal times. Times are now anything but normal.
A Path Forward
Municipalities have the power to acquire property through the use of eminent domain if the property is being taken for a legitimate public purpose. A municipality must pay the landowner the fair market value of the property in exchange.
The City of Fayetteville currently owns the baseball stadium land (parcel 460 below) as well as the sliver of land connecting the stadium to Hay Street.
Parcel (466) is the parking deck. The land is currently owned by Hay Street Development Pad, LLC. Fayetteville can “take” the land and the deck. The taxpayers will only have to pay the fair market value of the property as it sits today. Presumably, our city leaders would negotiate a price that is fair to taxpayers, not the developers. If no agreement can be reached, the matter can go before a jury to set the value.
Once acquired, the entire deck can be used by the general public. Residents of Prince Charles Apartments can lease spaces, just as any citizen can, for an agreed upon price. The city can lease out spaces to season ticket holders for baseball season and use the deck for other special events at the stadium.
This plan enables both sides to save face. It cuts to the reality that if we were going to get a hotel and offices, we would have already. Covid is an excuse at this point. Let’s call a spade a spade.
If it becomes economically feasible in a post-covid world to develop structures on top of the deck, the city can partner with anyone who is willing to honor its obligations and do so.