Hit Piece on Pennell is Cow Patties

‘Yellow Jacket Citizens’ play loose with the truth in attack upon School Board member, former superintendent

LENOIR, N.C. — A fact check of an attack piece against Caldwell County School Board incumbent Darrell Pennell by a Caldwell County group calling itself Yellow Jacket Citizens reveals that they are willing to play loose with the truth in its effort to take down Pennell.

Before offering evidence to support this analysis, I first wish to state clearly that I do not plan on voting for Darrell Pennell for the Caldwell County Board of Education.

However, neither am I going to ignore obvious efforts of character assassination through the use of misleading and demonizing information. Also, former Caldwell County Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Stone is attacked in the piece. He is retired from the system, so the authors of this hit piece are simply dragging Dr. Stone through the mud in an attempt to defeat Pennell. For that, they should be ashamed.

So, let’s look at the claims and then look at the facts. (Note: An email request for a response to this article was sent to Yellow Jacket Citizens. They had not replied as of the deadline).

The first misleading claim is the first statement: “Darrell Pennell was Steve Stone’s YES-MAN!” It is common for school board members (and board members of any organization) to defer to the subject-matter-expert they’ve hired. More to the point, the superintendent serves at the pleasure of the School Board. TAKEAWAY: While one might think Pennell was too subservient to Stone, that does not change the legal dynamic; Stone worked for the FULL School Board. More disturbingly, this is a blatant attempt to demonize the two men. I know them both. They’re fine public servants with whom I sometimes disagree.

Second Misleading Statement: “EVERY YEAR they’ve spent more than they brought in.” This is in reference to the school system’s spending over the last 10 years. This is blatantly untrue. It did spend from the savings account (Fund Balance; more on that in a moment), but it did not run a deficit as the piece alleges. TAKEAWAY: It is ironic that, on the piece, the authors claim, “Lots of good candidates this year that are real conservatives.” What the Yellow Jacket Citizens don’t say is that the North Carolina General Assembly, run by Republicans for 10 years, has slashed school spending. The vast majority of the county’s funding comes from the state. Well, those real conservatives cut spending so much that counties all over North Carolina have had to figure out how to account for the GOP stinginess — such as closing the school in Oak Hill. Since 2014, the school system has lost $1,253,836 in Low Wealth funding. According to the Public School Forum, “Low-wealth supplemental funding is provided to systems whose ability to generate local revenue per student is below the state average.”

Third Misleading Statement: “Now we’re broke.” No, the school system is not broke. These articles explain the challenges faced by the Caldwell County Schools: “Dropping Enrollment, State Budget Impasse Stress Caldwell County Schools” and “Caldwell School Board Faces Tough Budget Choices.” What you will actually read is that the school system for the last few years has been working to get on a more solid financial footing. TAKEAWAY: “Broke” suggests no money to spend. That’s just not true. Again, if the GOP-controlled legislature would support schools as the North Carolina Constitution requires, then the schools would have the needed resources.

Fourth Misleading Statement: “The Fund Balance is pretty much gone.” No, it’s not. In fact, it’s getting closer to the territory of the recommended level by the North Carolina Council of Governments — four percent of the annual budget. It is also worth noting that North Carolina law does not require school systems to maintain a fund balance. TAKEAWAY: The savings account is in better shape — largely because of the closing of Oak Hill School.

Fifth Misleading Statement: “They’re (the school system) permanently closing schools. This would be accurate except only one school has been closed. TAKEAWAY: This is an exaggeration, but with a grain of truth.

Sixth Misleading Statement: “And now they’re asking for tax increases.” There is always discussion between the School Board and County Commission about funding. But that is not the same as asking for a tax increase. However, the School Board can’t raise a penny in taxes. So, if one is opposed to additional local taxes for our local schools, then that needs to be taken up with the County Commission. TAKEAWAY: After the state, the primary source of funding for the county’s schools are county taxpayers. According to the Public School Forum “2020 Local School Finance Study” Caldwell County ranks 37th in the state for “Relative Effort.” This measure, which combines “Actual Effort” with “Ability to Pay,” arguably casts a favorable light on local education spending by the Caldwell County Commission. While Caldwell County ranked 73rd of the state’s 100 counties in the “Actual Effort” ranking, that “reflects the actual dollar effort of communities to fund schools, without taking into account property wealth.” Ability to pay “is a measure of a county’s per student fiscal capacity to support public schools.” In short, considering it’s tax base, the county is contributing more spending per pupil than a majority of North Carolina’s counties.

CONCLUSION

Once again, people have resorted to misleading statements and character assination for political gain when the issue is far more complicated than they wish to make it. For 25 years, the courts have held that North Carolina has failed to provide an education as required by the state constitution because of its funding formula. Sadly, that battle continues, and we see it being played out in our own county. One can hope for simple solutions, but they do not exist. Until this state is willing to consider giving school boards taxing authority to raise their own revenues, this problem will continue. And to those conservatives who say that we don’t need another entity levying taxes, I say that this hit piece betrays that claim. You can’t blame the School Board and the former superintendent for what the county commissioners and state legislators have failed to do — provide adequate funding for the schools — if you’re not going to empower school boards to levy a tax.

The people behind this hit piece have accomplished nothing except to harm the reputations of two long-serving county servants. That is more despicable — by far — than any mistake either man made in their desire to serve the students of Caldwell County. I don’t know if this hit piece was done out of malice, ignorance or both. One thing is clear. It is full of misleading statements.

So, I call cow patties on it.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2020. Investigation Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash