Charity refuses to pass NC taxpayer money to schools in one senator's district

J.M. Alexander Middle School, recently rebuilt with bond money, could become one of two middle schools used for all Huntersville residents under a CMS plan approved Tuesday.
J.M. Alexander Middle School, recently rebuilt with bond money, could become one of two middle schools used for all Huntersville residents under a CMS plan approved Tuesday. Observer file photo

North Carolina Republicans' plan to channel $200,000 to schools in the district of a senator facing a tough re-election bid hit a snag Wednesday when the charity tapped to channel the money said it won't participate.

DonorsChoose, a New York-based nonprofit that normally steers private donations to classroom teachers' projects, was not consulted on the plan that's part of the state budget bill, an official said Tuesday. After learning of it via Twitter, the group responded Wednesday afternoon to several people who had asked about the plan, which designates the state money only for the 35 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in state Sen. Jeff Tarte's new district.

"We cannot accept the funding outlined in the budget provision unless it’s changed to equitably support teachers and students throughout North Carolina," the DonorsChoose statement said. "We're grateful to Senator Tarte for looking to support students and teachers in his district. But other districts (including those with more students from low-income households) would not receive such support, which makes this budget provision feel against the spirit of our mission to fight education inequity and to serve where the need is greatest."

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It's unclear how that refusal might play out, given that the allocation for DonorsChoose is part of a 267-page budget bill sailing through the Republican-dominated legislature in a rare process that won't allow amendments.

Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, had said Tuesday he plans a news conference next week to announce the state money for teachers in his district. He could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon on DonorsChoose's refusal to take the money.

Senate map.JPG
The new N.C. Senate District 41 is in yellow.

The budget bill does not mention Tarte or explain why the spending is limited to 35 CMS schools, which range from the county's northern suburbs to its southern tip. The list initially confused educators and others trying to sort out the budget, but it encompasses all the public schools in the newly redrawn 41st district, where Tarte faces Democratic challenger Natasha Marcus. The new district is viewed as one that could change hands in the Nov. 6 election.

When news of the arrangement broke, both Tarte and DonorsChoose came under fire. Educators, including some who said they worked in schools in Tarte's district, said the plan unfairly distributes public money based on politics rather than need. While some of the schools have high poverty levels, many are located in affluent suburban areas where parents can raise money or make donations to help teachers pay for classroom needs.

DonorsChoose normally posts teacher projects that have been verified, allows donors to decide which ones to fund, then handles the purchasing and delivery and ensures follow-up for donors. It allocates 15 percent of donations for its own work — that would come to $30,000 of the state's $200,000 — and some teachers said the total overhead is higher once all fees are factored in.

Because state lawmakers hadn't spoken with DonorsChoose officials, according to Chief Marketing Officer Katie Bisbee, it was unclear how the financial arrangements would work.

So-called pork-barrel spending, in which lawmakers get public money for pet projects in their home district, is a political tradition in North Carolina and around the nation. The DonorsChoose money is among several such items sprinkled throughout the 2018-19 budget.

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Which schools benefit?

These are the schools targeted for $200,000 in state money to be funneled through DonorsChoose: Ardrey Kell High, Bailey Middle, Ballantyne Elementary, Barnette Elementary, Berryhill School, Berewick Elementary, Blythe Elementary, Community House Middle, Cornelius Elementary, Davidson Elementary, Elon Park Elementary, Francis Bradley Middle, Grand Oak Elementary, Hawk Ridge Elementary, Hopewell High, Huntersville Elementary, J.M. Alexander Middle, J.V. Washam Elementary, Kennedy Middle, Lake Wylie Elementary, Long Creek Elementary, North Mecklenburg High, Olympic Community of Schools, Palisades Park Elementary, Pineville Elementary, River Gate Elementary, River Oaks Academy, Southwest Middle, Steele Creek Elementary, Torrence Creek Elementary, Trillium Springs Montessori, Whitewater Academy, Whitewater Middle, William Amos Hough High and Winget Park Elementary.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms