Charter Schools North Carolina

North Carolina: Does Anyone Care about Ethics and Conflicts of Interest?

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Greg Childress of NC Policy Watch reports that a government watchdog group has lodged a complaint against one of the state’s most powerful elected officials.

Rep. John Torbett, chair of the House K-12 Education Committee and the Education Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations failed to acknowledge that his wife serves on the board of a state-funded charter school.

He writes:

Rep. John Torbett, chairman of the state’s influential House Education K-12 Committee, is the target of a Legislative Ethics Committee complaint alleging the Gaston County Republican failed to disclose that his wife serves on a charter school board that receives state funding.

The complaint was filed this week by Bob Hall, the retired executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights and government watchdog group.

Viddia Torbett is also her husband’s legislative assistant.

Hall contends Torbett should have disclosed on 2020 and 2021 statements of economic interest (SEI) that his wife, Viddia Torbett, is vice-chairwoman of the board of directors of Community Public Charter School in Stanley. The school is affiliated with the Community Pentecostal Center.

“The failure of Rep. [John] Torbett to disclose his wife’s position on the School’s board of directors is all the more important because Rep. [John] Torbett is now the chair of the House Committee on K-12 Education and is chair of the Education Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, i.e., two positions where he has significant influence over policy and funding of charter schools and public education,” Hall said in the complaint.

Torbett was first elected to the House in 2010. He was assigned to the Education K-12 Committee and the Appropriations on Education Committee to start the current legislative session. Torbett chairs both committees.

“You’ve got a powerful legislator with a personal bias or a personal interest in the financial solvency of a charter school, so he’s got a conflict between serving the public and serving his own personal interest,” Hall said in an interview with Policy Watch. “That ought to be disclosed if not him recusing himself from involvement in the funding of charter schools.”

Anyone subject to the State Government Ethics Act must file an SEI prior to being appointed, employed or elected, by April 15 of each year. That covers roughly 6,500 people, including appointed officials and elected members of the General Assembly…

This week’s complaint against Torbett isn’t the first Hall has filed against the lawmaker.

Last October, Hall filed a complaint alleging that Torbett and Josh Dobson, a former state representative who was elected state Commissioner of Labor last November, were inappropriately collecting thousands of dollars from the General Assembly for lodging in Raleigh even though their housing was being paid for by campaign committees.

The “double-dipping,” Hall said, was a violation of the Legislative Ethics Committee’s Guideline 11, which prohibits lawmakers from collecting per diem payments from the government for lodging expenses paid by another entity.

“However, in a bizarre turnabout after it received my complaint against Rep. Torbett and another legislator,” Hall wrote to the Legislative Ethics Committee, “the Committee met in late October 2020 and voted to rescind Guideline 11 and then dismissed my complaint.”

In 2020, there were seven complaints filed with the Legislative Ethics Committee. All seven were dismissed, according to the committee’s annual report. ..

The charter school where Torbett’s wife serves on the board has drawn national criticism because it received a $250,000 Charter School Program grant intended to help disadvantaged students.

Carol Burris, executive director for the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group that opposes charter schools, wrote about the school and others in a Washington Post column. Burris criticized them for their lack of diversity.

“During 2019, the year in which the school was awarded its Charter School Program grant of $250,000, 95 percent of the school’s students were White, compared with its integrated public school district, Gaston, where only 53 percent of the students are White,” Burris wrote.

John Torbett is also the sponsor of House Bill 324, which would limit what students could be taught about the nation’s racial past.

Conservatives have embraced the controversial bill, arguing that it would prevent teachers from indoctrinating students with liberal ideology. Progressives oppose it, saying it’s important that children learn hard truths about systemic racism, slavery and Jim Crow laws.

The Public School Forum of NC wrote this comparison of different budget proposals for K-12 spending. What jumped out at me was the Republican proposal to grant permanent status to the state’s three virtual charter schools, despite their poor performance.

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