CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - One paragraph in the 267-page North Carolina budget bill released Monday night immediately had educators abuzz: The state will provide $200,000 to DonorsChoose, a nonprofit that normally channels private donations to classroom teachers, for use in 35 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
The listed schools span a stretch that runs from Davidson Elementary in northernmost Mecklenburg County to Elon Park Elementary in the southern tip. They cover the north suburbs, run along the county's western edge and scoop up southwest and south Charlotte. Many are affluent suburban schools, but some have high poverty levels.
"Umm ... anyone wanna try and explain this?" an administrator on a North Carolina teachers' Facebook page posted shortly after the bill was released to the public.
"Hawk Ridge? Elon? These are wealthy south Charlotte schools. So confused," one reply said.
"What. The. Actual ..." read another comment, which is not printable in its entirety. "I am livid over this."
But there's an explanation for the odd distribution of schools, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Government Relations Coordinator Charles Jeter, a former state legislator. They all fall into the newly redrawn 41st Senate district represented by Cornelius Republican Jeff Tarte, who faces a competitive re-election race in November.
"I assume that's the re-elect Jeff Tarte provision of the budget," Jeter replied to a reporter's query about the DonorsChoose list. Jeter, a Republican, says Tarte and state Rep. John Bradford, R-Cornelius, recently asked him for a list of all CMS schools in their electoral districts, which Jeter provided.
Tarte said Tuesday he plans to hold a news conference next week to explain the project. "Know I am excited to share the news," he said in an email to the Observer.
Tarte faces Davidson Democrat Natasha Marcus, who describes the new district as "one of the most flippable Senate Districts in North Carolina" in the Nov. 6 election.
The state allocation for DonorsChoose came as a surprise to leaders of the New York-based charity, said Chief Marketing Officer Katie Bisbee.
"We just learned about it on Twitter last night," she said Tuesday.
How much to schools?
DonorsChoose provides an online forum for teachers across the country to list classroom projects, which private donors can support. Unlike most crowd-funding sites, DonorsChoose screens proposals and ensures that the money is spent for what was promised. It has received large, multiproject donations from such big names as Stephen Colbert, Bill Gatesand philanthropist Herb Kohl.
It's unclear how much of the state money will actually get to classrooms. DonorsChoose reports that 15 percent of donations — that would be $30,000 out of the $200,000 — "is default-allocated to overhead, teacher outreach, maintenance and build-out of the DonorsChoose.org website. Citizen donors may opt out ... while partners leave it intact."
Waddell Language Academy teacher Justin Parmenter noted in a blog post that donors recently bought him 80 classroom novels that cost $838, but the total raised by DonorsChoose was $1,113, including "processing fees, mysterious 'materials,' and a large 'suggested donation'. "
"It's fair to ask whether this is a responsible use of taxpayer dollars," Parmenter said of the plan to channel state money through DonorsChoose .
The North Carolina budget bill says the $200,000 in state money will be used to pay for "the supplies needed to carry out classroom projects planned and requested by educators" only in the 35 listed schools. It calls for DonorsChoose and the state Department of Public Instruction to report a distribution plan by Sept. 1.
"We're grateful to anyone who wants to use DonorsChoose.org to support teachers and students," Bisbee said, "and we're also committed to serving where the economic need is greatest, so if the provision passes, we would hope to work with the Department of Public Instruction to ensure that any funds are distributed equitably."
Marcus, Tarte's opponent, dubbed the allocation for schools in the 41st District a "Hunger Games-inspired approach of pitting teachers against teachers."
"We deserve a Senator who fights for all public schools year-round, not just select schools in his district when he's facing a tough re-election and needs to distract voters from his awful record on public education," Marcus said Tuesday evening.
Pork is a tradition
While North Carolina's constitution calls for a uniform system of public education, the state has long interpreted that to allow supplemental funding based on various factors, said Gerry Cohen, a retired special counsel and chief bill drafter for the General Assembly.
The allocation for schools in Tarte's district appears to fall into the long tradition of "pork-barrel bills," or money that lawmakers can spend in their own districts, Cohen said. In the late 1980s, when Democrats were in charge, lists of pork-barrel projects could run to 300 pages or so, he said, but they've since become less common.
Still, local projects are sprinkled throughout the bill, which is being considered under a process that allows for little debate or revision. For instance, a paragraph on page 72 of the bill allots $250,000 from social services and substance abuse block grants to Cross Trail Outfitters for "purposes of promoting wellness and physical activity for youth seven to 20 years of age."
According to its website, Cross Trail Outfitters is a Christian hunting and fishing club based in Plymouth, with a motto of "guiding the next generation to Christ through the outdoors."
Cohen said providing money to a religious organization isn't inherently problematic unless the state money pays for proselytizing. The question, he said, is "does every fly-fishing session these youths would be in ... involved prayers and Bible study?"
Which schools benefit?