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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thom Tillis To Cut Unnecessary N.C. Schools Budget Policy Strings: Educational Freedom

New North Carolina House Speaker To Cut Educational Policy Strings: Educational Freedom

Local schools facing big budget cuts can expect more freedom on how to spend state money, says Rep. Thom Tillis, a Huntersville Republican who's been tapped as House speaker in the new GOP-dominated legislature.

Before he was elected to the North Carolina State Legislature four years ago, Tillis was a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parent volunteer, PTSA president and education activist from the northern suburbs.

Now he brings that experience to a top post in a year that could shake the foundations of public education, with Republicans holding a majority in the state legislature for the first time in more than a century and a $3 Billion gap looming in the N.C. State budget.

Tillis says his PTSA work at Hopewell High gave him a firsthand view of how many strings come attached to state money. While he's not ready to offer specifics, he says Republicans are ready to loosen those strings.

"There's about 500 pages of statutes," Tillis said. "How can we ease the burden?"

That's welcome news to CMS leaders, who have long sought more decision-making power.

Board chair Eric Davis, who is registered unaffiliated, says much of the current control dates to the Great Depression, when North Carolina stepped in as small districts went broke.

"We're now in an economic crisis second only to the Great Depression," Davis said, and he urges state legislators to seize the opportunity to get rid of "rules and regulations that tie our hands."

The CMS board is still working on a legislative wish list, but Davis cited rules restricting furloughs and setting the school calendar as examples that limit local options.

Superintendent Peter Gorman said Wednesday that he'd like to see the state give each district its share of the money with no restrictions. Now, state money is often attached to prescribed jobs. Preliminary state plans for dealing with big cuts in 2011 would reduce the number of teachers available at each grade level, a loss of up to 500 from CMS alone, and eliminate teacher assistants in grades 1-3, leaving them only in kindergarten.

Gorman said he'd like the option of cutting something else to preserve assistants. Making those decisions brings more criticism to local officials, he said, but "I'd rather take the blame and be more strategic."

Tillis says his party has some broad strokes plans for education, from allowing more charter schools to cutting regulations. Starting this month, he said, he and other leaders will meet with educators, officials, parents and others willing to help chart the details.

"We want as many people engaged in the process as are interested," he said shortly after Republicans chose him to become speaker.

Up-close knowledge

Mary McCray, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, calls Tillis' CMS experience "a plus-plus."

"He knows what overcrowded high schools are, what they look like," McCray said.

In 2003, Tillis was part of FUME, a north-suburban parent group organized by Rhonda Lennon, who's now on the CMS board. The group was concerned about school crowding created by CMS student assignment and slow construction of suburban schools, along with other issues.

At Hopewell, Tillis said, concerns about safety and discipline led to a PTA survey of teachers. That taught him to listen to rank-and-file educators, he said.

He said he'll work with groups such as the N.C. Association of Educators, a quasi-union in a right-to-work state, but "I don't view the NCAE as being the voice of teachers."

Tillis says his own family has experienced school choice; his two kids attended both public and private schools. His daughter graduated from CMS's Hopewell and attends Central Piedmont Community College, he said, while his son graduated from the private Cannon School and attends American University in Washington, D.C.

One of the GOP's top priorities is lifting North Carolina's 100-school limit on charters, which get public money but don't report to local districts.

"I believe this year if you see nothing else, you will see a more friendly environment for charter schools in North Carolina," he said.

Not all charters are successful, Tillis said, but a wider range would offer more options and more success stories. His goal, he says, is recognizing standouts among charters and traditional public schools.

Swinging for doubles

The 2011 session convenes Jan. 26; that's when new members will be sworn in and the speaker will be formally elected.

The legislature could re-examine the state pay scale, Tillis said. He said he's intrigued by CMS's quest to base teacher pay on student progress and other measures of effectiveness, rather than seniority and credentials.

"I believe it's worked well in business and been successful in some other districts," he said.

And he said he'd consider loosening the state-imposed limits on when the school year stops and starts, as long as changes don't harm the economy. Some businesses that rely on summer vacation trade and/or student labor lobbied for a uniform school year.

Every creative approach that state and local officials can find will help, Tillis said, even though he doubts there's one big answer to dealing with cuts.

"I don't believe there are any home runs out there," he said, "but I do believe there are a lot of singles and doubles."

Thom Tillis Elected New North Carolina House Speaker

North Carolina Republicans narrowly selected state Rep. Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County on Saturday as their nominee to become the next speaker of the North Carolina House. Tillis is a relative newcomer with fiscal expertise who was the GOP's floor chief for the past four years.

House Republicans claimed 68 seats on Election Day, all but assuring sole GOP control of the 120-seat chamber and the speaker's post for the first time since 1998. The actual vote for speaker occurs Jan. 26 on the session's first day.

Democrat Joe Hackney, who loses his position as speaker to the incoming Republican majority, issued a statement Saturday congratulating Tillis.

"My Democratic colleagues and I look forward to working with him to make our state better," Hackney said.

"We will also continue to support action consistent with our principles. We will oppose policies that take North Carolina backward, that threaten to destroy the remarkable progress we have made in our public schools, our community colleges and our universities, or that threaten our outstanding and highly lauded climate for business."

Tillis, 50, who just won his third term to the Legislature, defeated three other candidates, including Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, the minority leader since 2007.

Results of the private meeting, secret-ballot vote weren't released by caucus leaders, who would only say that Tillis won on the second ballot and that the final margin was thin.

Stam unanimously was elected majority leader, which Tillis called a sign of the amicable competition and the good feelings Republicans had for both candidates. Two other candidates who had sought the majority leader's post dropped out for Stam.

"We went in there unified and we came out unified, and I have every reason to believe that that's why we're going to go into the legislative session and make history," Tillis told reporters after the meeting.

Stam said the GOP will lead cooperatively and constructively. "We're still going to cooperate with Democrats whenever we can. In the past, it was out of necessity because it was the way to get our bills passed, but, in the future, we'll do it because it's good government," he said.

Tillis, a former IBM business consultant first elected to the House in 2006 and became minority whip in 2009, has won points for running the campaign operation that raised money and recruited candidates who defeated more than a dozen Democratic incumbents. He said fiscal issues such as taxation and narrowing a projected $3.2 billion budget gap would be the immediate work of the new majority.

"This is a part-time legislature that's going to try and solve that crisis over a six-month period. Most CEOs would go running for the door if they had to take on the task that we've worked hard to take on," he said.

"Our priorities are going to be what they were in the campaign," Tillis said. "We're going to focus on the fiscal situation. We're going to focus on trying whatever we can to create jobs. We're going to live up to our promises."

Stam, an Apex attorney completing his fifth term, also talked fiscal matters but appealed more to social conservatives and has been involved in Republican Party politics since the early 1970s. He first joined the House in 1989 and returned more than a decade later.

Reps. Ric Killian of Mecklenburg County and Mitch Gillespie of McDowell County also ran for speaker Saturday. They were removed from the ballot after they trailed in the first round of voting.

Outgoing Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, has been in the Legislature for 30 years. State GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer said he didn't believe Tillis' relative inexperience is a liability.

"He's going to bring a businessman's focus, a businessman's perspective to the job of speaker. He's not a career politician," Fetzer said. "We need to disabuse ourselves of this notion that people have to be around there forever to effectively lead."

Tillis and Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, chosen Thursday as the GOP's choice for Senate leader, will become the top Republican leaders in state government, setting the tone for what legislation will be heard and which lawmakers will get plum committee assignments. They'll also serve as chief negotiators with, and likely foils of, Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Tillis said he won't have all the answers leading the House but said he knows where to find them.

"I have the kind of experience that you need to lead a caucus that has tremendous institutional knowledge," Tillis said.

Unity is a sensitive issue for House Republicans, who struggled through a fracturous decade between those aligned with or against former co-Speaker Richard Morgan, R-Moore. The infighting surfaced in primary elections during the 2004 or 2006, taking out several GOP incumbents. Stam, 60, is credited with restoring the caucus.

House Republicans also agreed to nominate Rep. Dale Folwell of Forsyth County as speaker pro tempore, a largely ceremonial position but one Tillis said Folwell initially will use to help with new member orientation. Folwell still must be elected by the entire chamber January. The caucus also elected Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, as chairwoman of the joint House-Senate Republican caucus.

The day was largely a joyful one for Republicans, who have held control or partial control of the House for only six years since the 1898 elections. When asked what it will be like switching from minority leader to majority leader, Stam replied simply: "We're going to win a whole lot more votes."

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Sources: McClatchy Newspapers, WCNC, WRAL, Google Maps

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