Former Macon County School Board member Kevin Corbin is using his leverage as deputy whip in the North Carolina House to advance education-related legislation, even if he faces opposition from powerful lobbies and the N.C. Senate.
“This is a school issue, an education issue, not a tourism or commerce issue,” said Rep. Corbin of a bill intended to give superintendents the flexibility to set summer break schedules for students, a bill that the tourism lobby stopped in its tracks last year. “If you can figure that one out, tell me.”
Rep. Corbin said the bill voted out of the House last year, but had no future in the Senate, where leadership said it would not hear any school calendar flexibility bills that the tourism lobby opposed. This year, Rep. Corbin has a different strategy thanks to a tip from his Senate colleague, Jim Davis.
“He said if I had any chance, it would have to be a local bill just for my four counties,” he said of HB 23, presented on Feb. 6 to benefit Macon, Clay, Graham and Cherokee counties. A slew of similar bills are cropping up from representatives and senators across the state.
Rep. Corbin underscored that the bill is not about shortening the summer break for students but allowing superintendents to slide it to the left or to the right so that it makes more sense. The tourism industry argues that high school students are needed to work through the month of August. Rep. Corbin believes a shift in the school schedule would affect when people take vacation, and not adversely affect the industry.
“It’s extremely inefficient for teachers and students,” he said, noting that high school students who are dual enrolled in community college study on two different semester schedules. Likewise, high schoolers take finals after the winter break under the current schedule, which requires that the school year not begin until the end of August.
Rep. Corbin said his Senate colleague Jim Davis supports his position on school calendar flexibility but pointed out the most likely solution will be a bill that allows community college and public school calendars to line up.
“That would be a step in the right direction,” he said.
Funding school construction
Rep. Corbin kicked off his sophomore legislative session with a whisper that he would be tapped to cowrite a $2 billion school bond bill to help fund new school infrastructure, the first bill of its kind in more than 20 years.
After the 2008 recession led legislators to pilfer lottery proceeds intended for school construction, Rep. Corbin and other representatives were able to win back $100 million for schools in 2018. That brought the percentage of lottery proceeds benefitting schools up to about 30 percent, still a long ways away from the 40 percent schools had before the recession.
“There’s still some room to go,” he explained. “There’s general agreement in the House and the Senate that we need to do something with school construction.”
But the Senate seems to have beat him to it with a bill to reallocate general funding from sources like the lottery to pay $2 billion in new school infrastructure and upgrades over seven years.
“However you skin that cat, as long as it allows us to get it done,” said Rep. Corbin, who admitted he was open to alternatives, as long it led to more dollars for public schools in his district.
Reinstituting master’s degree pay incentive
As of 2014 in the state of North Carolina, teachers who earned a master’s degree would not be eligible for a 10 percent pay increase. The state was effectively telling teachers a master’s degree had no added value.
“Why would you want to discourage folks from increasing their education levels?” said Rep. Corbin, on a phone interview while driving to Raleigh on Presidents’ Day for a leadership meeting.
Discussing the several million dollars that would be required to repeal the lost pay incentives, Rep. Corbin said, “As a function of a $24 billion budget, it’s a very small amount.”
Broadband companies told ‘come up
with a solution’
Rep. Corbin also met with broadband providers AT&T and Charter last week. The companies do not have a presence in Macon County, but were part of the opposition to legislation last year that would allow counties to construct broadband infrastructure and lease it to private companies.
The legislator explained that the companies feared that local governments would get involved in providing Internet service to the public, even though legislation explicitly prohibits it.
“These people haven’t been out here at all,” he said, acknowledging it’s a “heavy lift” for broadband providers to make the multimillion-dollar investment in rural communities. While last year’s legislation was shot down, Rep. Corbin believes he “got their attention.”
“If you don’t want to do it this way, then you come up with an idea,” he proposed to the Internet providers, who promised they would return with viable alternatives in the coming weeks.
Working with his mountain colleague Josh Dobson of the 85th district, Corbin plans to introduce a bill again this year that would allow counties and cities to build the “trunks” and lay the Internet cables to lease to private corporations.
He acknowledged that the state’s GREAT grants of $10 million to support private initiatives to expand broadband access is just “a drop in the bucket,” as is the $400,000 allocated by the Macon County Board of Commissioners to incentivize private broadband investment.
“The issue is money and whose money is it going to be,” said Rep. Corbin. “Right now, it’s not legal for counties to build it and lease that space to providers.”
Rep. Corbin still believes the solution to bringing broadband Internet access to 80-90 percent of rural residents will require a state/local private partnership.
“If those private businesses aren’t going to come out here and hook people up, then we need to come up with another way,” he said.