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ACS rises to 18th in State Report Card Rankings

NEWLAND — During the regular meeting of the Avery County Board of Education on Sept. 10, it was announced that the district had climbed three places, from No. 21 to No. 18 in the State Report Card Rankings.

The improvement has the district inching toward the top 10 percent out of the 115 school districts in the state. This compares favorably to a number of nearby districts, and even districts in significantly larger metro areas, yet neighboring Watauga County, which consistently ranks highly in the state, placed at No. 5.

Avery County had a district grade level proficiency of 66.1 percent in grades three to eight assessments, compared to a state proficiency of 58.8 percent.

On End-of-Course Assessments, 60 percent of students performed at or above grade level proficiency compared to a state average of 58.5 percent.

On ACT testing performance the county had 60.8 percent proficiency compared to the state’s 57.9 percent, and the district maintained a high graduation rate of 94 percent compared to the state rate of 86.3 percent.

Seniors who obtained an N.C. Math 3 credit is an indicator of student success in high level math courses in high school. Avery had a 95-percent proficiency against a state proficiency of 92.9 percent.

Director of Curriculum and Instruction Ayers noted a number of the top districts are in the least neediest bracket in the state, with more infrastructure and other built-in advantages.

Avery falls into the second tier of counties in terms of neediness, between the 25th and 60th percentile, which includes nearby districts including Ashe, Caldwell and Madison counties.

In his presentation on the ranking, Ayers noted the district made significant budget decreases last year to make ends meet, which required the district to do more with less, and a free and reduced lunch population that is above average in the state.

“Also taking into account that we’ve got 20 days the last two years that we’ve missed,” Ayers said. “Not only that those days were missed, we’ve actually got less days in our calendar than a lot of these other districts.”

Districts also reported the number of days missed due to weather from Hurricane Florence in 2018. Avery missed one for flooding concerns.

Ellis noted some figures for the high school performance grades were off somewhat due to how the school is divided into three academies. Going forward, the high school will be considered as one unit to make more direct comparisons.

All of the elementary and middle schools met or exceeded growth targets.

All figures referenced are for the 2018-2019 school year.

NC House Republicans pass state budget veto override

RALEIGH — In an act that has been called deceptive and un-democratic by state Democrats, N.C. House Republicans overrode the governor’s veto of the state budget in a Sept. 11 session that N.C. House Democrats say they were told would be a no-vote session.

The vote on the $24 billion state budget, House Bill 866, occurred in an 8:30 a.m. session of the N.C. House. Officially, there were only 70 members present, including 55 Republicans, in the 120-seat body. N.C. General Assembly rules state that a majority of members must be in attendance for a quorum.

The official veto override tally was 55-15 for HB966, despite furious protests by Democrats in attendance. If all 120 members were present, N.C. House Republicans would not have had the 60 percent needed for the veto override, as they account for 65 members.

“Under our rules, we took a vote on the override,” N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) said in a Sept. 11 statement. “It was properly noticed. The procedures were properly followed, and we took the vote.”

Rep. Josh Dobson (R-Nebo), who represents Avery County in the state House and is a chair on the House Appropriations Committee, was excused that day.

“I assumed we would be done by now; we would be finished in Raleigh with the session,” Dobson said.

At the time of the vote, Dobson was at his other job in McDowell, and he was surprised by the vote.

“I’m not going to comment on the process. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know the specifics of everything that went down that day,” Dobson said.

Dobson said his focus going forward will be on the merits of the good things in the budget and not the process.

“I think it’s a very good budget that I had a major hand in writing, so I’m proud of the content of the budget,” Dobson added.

The budget impasse between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly has been ongoing since Cooper vetoed HB966 on June 28. Prior to Sept. 11, the last action on HB966 came on July 1 as the veto override was placed on the N.C. House calendar for a vote on July 8 and more than two months have passed without an action.

The Republican-crafted budget for 2019-20 includes teacher salary raises, lowering the standard deduction for income taxpayers, and for Avery County Schools there is a $10,511,929 sum for capital projects.

But Cooper and state Democrats say the budget lacks Medicaid expansion and better pay for state employees, school facilities, public infrastructure projects and the N.C. Division of Health and Human Services.

WRAL-TV in Raleigh published a text message purporting to be from N.C. House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis (R-Dunn) to reporter Laura Leslie in which Lewis says the 8:30 a.m. session would be a no-vote session. In the exchange, Leslie asks, “Do you know whether the voting session will be at 8:30 (a.m.) tomorrow? Thanks,” to which Lewis replies, “No votes at 8:30 (a.m.)”

Speaking on Sept. 11, Lewis told WRAL he didn’t believe there would be any votes during the 8:30 a.m. session. Lewis was not on the floor during the vote, the station reported.

Going forward, HB966 is now in the N.C. Senate, which currently has 29 Republicans and 21 Democrats. Like the N.C. House, a 60-percent vote is required to override the governor’s veto, meaning if one state Senate Democrat changes sides or two are not in attendance, the state Senate Republicans would have the votes, if in full attendance, for a veto override.

With the 2019-20 biennium budget not enacted, funding levels for state agencies and other state-funded organizations have stayed the same as under the previous biennium budget since the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. N.C. state law prevents a government shutdown.

Records: LMC evacuation cause unknown

BANNER ELK — Acting in what was called an “abundance of caution,” Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk evacuated the Avery Residence Hall on Aug. 30, to investigate a suspected gas leak after a call was placed to Banner Elk Volunteer Fire Department at 12:29 a.m. that morning.

Students had returned to the hall as of 8 p.m. on Aug. 31, according to a press release from the college.

“Some students in one of our residence halls, Avery, reported feeling unwell to our staff,” Lees-McRae College’s Vice President for Planning and External Relations Blaine Hansen said. “In an abundance of caution, we evacuated the building and emergency services was called.”

Hansen said that approximately 160 students live in Avery Residence Hall. According to LMC’s website, Avery Residence Hall houses female students from freshmen to seniors. Lees-McRae College is a co-educational private college of just more than 1,000 students situated in downtown Banner Elk.

A press release from Lees-McRae noted about 70 students were transported and received treatment at Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville, Watauga Medical Center in Boone and Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine, yet a field report by Avery County Director of Planning and Inspections Tommy Burleson dated Aug. 30 in records acquired by The AJT indicated that 72 students and nine visitors to the residence hall were transported.

The report also notes that two hospitals in addition to Cannon had to be used due to the volume of patients, and none of the students tested positive for natural gas or carbon monoxide poisoning.

The report notes none of the carbon monoxide detectors in the hall were activated, and Appalachian Protective Service tested the system installed in the building with no faults found, with handheld detectors used by first responders also not activating during the evacuation.

Investigations continued throughout the day by county inspectors, utilities representatives, professional contractors and college facilities staff. No natural gas leaks were found and this was eliminated as the possible cause, according to a press release from LMC.

Additional testing concluded that all equipment is normally functioning, which was confirmed by records obtained by The AJT. The press release said officials were not able to replicate the conditions that led to the evacuation.

“At this time, Lees-McRae College does not have any new or additional information to add,” an LMC spokesperson said in response to a request for comment via email to the following:

  • What specific symptoms were being exhibited by the 70 students who were transported to hospitals?
  • If natural gas was eliminated as the possible cause of these symptoms, what other possible causes have been explored and investigated?
  • Where was the unrelated code violation in a natural gas regulator found in relation to Avery Residence Hall or other campus buildings?
  • If the unrelated code violation was at Avery Residence Hall, can they explain how they know this was unrelated to students’ symptoms?

Another field report by Burleson noted that a meeting took place at 10:30 a.m. between the Avery County Planning and Inspections Department and the Emergency Response team on the morning of Aug. 31. The meeting was attended by LMC President Lee King, Provost Todd Lidh, Finance Director John Kokas, Communication Director Blain Hansen, Aramark Facility Service Contractor Field Investigator William Porter and Burleson.

The meeting included a discussion of the measures needed to be taken to reopen the residence hall including, paraphrased from a field report:

  • Confirmation by Banner Elk Volunteer Fire and Rescue that both tests for raw natural gas and elevated carbon monoxide levels were negative.
  • Lees-McRae College Facility Service would obtain a permit to correct equipment regulator vents from three units.
  • Appalachian Protective Service would test the life safety fire panel, as well as adding an additional measure to the system and nine additional carbon monoxide detectors. It is noted in the field report this measure is above state mechanical code requirements.
  • Piedmont Natural Gas would verify that gas piping is in working order.

The unrelated code violation noted in a field report describes discovering “a manifold purge vent off the equipment regulators terminated directly outside and above the mechanical room door.”

“The Avery County Inspection Department and the Avery County Fire Marshall feel that all appropriate measures have been taken, from testing of individual equipment units, to canvassing all residential sleeping areas, to ensuring that we addressed this separate concern,” Burleson said in a press release statement. “We have issued a certificate of compliance so the building can return to operation.”

The code violation was corrected by contractors from Asheville on Aug. 31, while the building was still unoccupied.

Both Burleson and Avery County Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Buchanan directed The AJT to the joint press release distributed by LMC when asked for comment.