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Cooper lets changes to NC schools for deaf, blind become law

Governor Cooper looks off-camera
NC Dept. of Public Safety

Governance of the state’s public residential schools for the deaf and the blind is being shifted to new trustee boards controlled by General Assembly appointees in legislation that became law Monday because Gov. Roy Cooper neither signed nor vetoed it.

The state constitution gave the Democratic governor until Sunday night to act upon the measure, or otherwise it would be enacted without his signature.

The absence of action is a little surprising since less than a year ago Cooper vetoed a very similar bill. At that time, he said the proposed makeup of the boards — slanted toward choices of a legislature now controlled by Republicans — was unconstitutional.

Cooper made a similar argument in a written statement released Monday: “This bill unconstitutionally attacks the State Board of Education by putting partisan political appointees of the legislature in charge of our NC schools for the deaf and blind, and I will not sign it."

His pullback this year, however, could reflect the Republicans' now larger seat margins in the House and Senate compared to 2022 that make it easier for the GOP to complete successful veto overrides. Republicans didn't attempt to override his veto last year, even when the bill received strong bipartisan support.

This year, three House Democrats and two Senate Democrats joined all Republicans voting in approving the measure.

The General Assembly completed its first veto override since 2018 last week when it voted over Cooper’s objections to enact a bill eliminating the state’s pistol permit purchase system and allowing concealed weapon holders the ability to carry inside more houses of religious worship.

The new law says the General Assembly, at the recommendation of the House speaker and Senate leader, will have power to appoint four of the five positions on the proposed boards for each school. The remaining board member who can vote will be appointed by the State Board of Education, to which the governor names nearly all voting members.

Attendance for in-state enrollees is free at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton and the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf in Wilson.

The State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction currently oversee the governance and administration of the schools, including staff appointments.

The new law says the new campus boards would take over these and other duties in July 2024, including the hiring of a director, setting of admission standards and receiving applications.

Backers of the measure say letting the schools operate this way independently will result in better instruction and services for students, and could better address behavioral issues on the campuses. Critics say it could actually harm these students.

In recent years, the legislature has enacted measures removing the governor’s powers to select members of trustee boards at University of North Carolina system schools and of some local community college boards.

Some state Supreme Court rulings have affirmed that the compositions of some boards and commissions can be unconstitutional when they interfere with the governor’s ability to carry out laws by giving him no meaningful control over the panels.

Cooper's statement on Monday also lamented separate efforts by Republican legislators to “encourage politics to interfere with public school curriculums” and urged them to stop advancing them. The House passed a measure last month restricting how teachers can discuss certain racial topics that some lawmakers have equated to “critical race theory.”

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