North Carolina Closes Public Schools, To Reopen Them as Fee-Only ’Learning Centers’

 

All gassed up with nowhere to go, a Durham, NC, school bus sits empty, waiting for the pandemic to conclude.

The public schools of Durham, NC, were closed by the pandemic, its students told to stay at home to attend virtual classes, but then one cohort was invited back, told to pay a registration and weekly fee to attend the same schools now dubbed ‘learning centers.”

At least during the first nine weeks of school, six vacant school buildings will be repurposed as learning centers to assist K-5 students who are having difficulty with distance education. 

While some students may be able to attend the learning centers free-of-charge, most other families must pay a $35 registration fee and $140 weekly. DPS employees’ rate is $105, while families of students on free or reduced lunch will pay $70 per week.

The constitutionality of the decision is being questioned as Durham Public Schools includes schools in the city and county of Durham, where the property owners are subject to an average property tax of $1.1599 per hundred dollars of the property’s assessed value, according to The Washington Examiner.

North Carolina Senate President Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Monday the DPS learning centers fee violates the state’s constitution which requires the state to provide “a general and uniform system of free public schools … wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.”

“Durham, and any other jurisdiction charging this illegal tax, is preventing underprivileged families from accessing public school resources,” Berger said. “They need to repeal their unconstitutional school tax immediately.”

About $135 million of the district’s 2020-2021 budget comes from local revenue, while state and federal funds also support DPS’ operational and instructional costs. DPS received $230 million from the state for the 2020-2021 school year, and the district also received $37.1 million in federal grants for schools with a high proportion of children from low-income households or students with disabilities.

“Opening our school year remotely is the right decision to protect our students and staff from COVID-19,” said DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga. “However, there are many families in Durham who need additional support during the school day. It will take a community effort to support each of these children, but DPS is doing its part.”

Parents will walk their child to a “waiting area” at the designated door entering the school building. The arrival times will be staggered to adhere to social distancing guidelines and to conduct health screenings. Parents and visitors are not permitted in the building to ensure the health and safety of children and staff. Parents will be asked questions before children are permitted and if they are not answered accordingly, the child will be denied entrance, the DPS website states.

Children will be assigned to small groups of ten students in similar grades and will remain with their group for the entire day.  There will be minimal interaction between groups.  Staff (not teachers) will remain with their group.  Students will receive breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack each day. All meals including snacks will be served in their classroom.

Jeanette Doran, president of the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law, has questions about staffing, the budget and price point for the fee. Through a public records request, she has asked DPS to send her details about operational cost for the learning centers, hiring procedures and selection and COVID-19 requirements. She wants to know how DPS is justifying charging the fee.

“There’s a constitutional right to a free public education,” Doran said. “We cannot allow public schools to become refuges for the elite, who can come up with $140 every week for each student.”

John Locke Foundation Director of Legal Studies Jon Guze states that Durham is charging for the services it provides at the learning centers but is not providing those services equally to all students.

Guze said he believes DPS will argue the “support” it will provide does not constitute “teaching,” which means the learning centers are not schools, based on the law. However, it should be noted that DPS is utilizing tax-payer-funded buildings rent-free to operate their learning centers.

“I don’t know whether that argument would succeed in court,” Guze said. “Maybe we’ll soon find out.

Students and instructors at a Durham Public Schools STEM event, February 2020, before the pandemic shut it all down. (Photo from Durham Public Schools media kit)

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