Thursday News: Privatization boondoggle


TEST SCORES WORSEN AT FIRST SCHOOL TAKEN OVER BY CHARTER: More schools may be taken over by the state’s Innovative School District, even as a new report showed flat test scores and a variety of problems at the only school now in the controversial program. Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County ended the program’s first year with an “F” grade, not meeting academic growth and a drop in the percentage of students passing state exams. Some of the schools that fought to stay under local control have higher grades now than Southside, according to a report presented Wednesday to the State Board of Education. The Innovative School District was created by Republican state lawmakers in 2016 to take up to five low-performing elementary schools away from local school district control and turn them over to an outside group to run.

DUKE ENERGY RATE BILL IS BACK IN ACTION (it still stinks): Senate Bill 559 has bounced around the General Assembly for months, drawing bipartisan support and bipartisan concern. In August, the House cut a key section, turning the company's pitch to change the way regulators approve rate increases and control the monopoly's profits into a plan to simply study the proposal. After negotiations between House and Senate leaders, the study language is gone, and the bill's original intent is back. The measure passed the Senate 26-16 and will likely be back before the House for a vote next week. Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, a key supporter, said he believes the bill will pass. He said the the month-and-a-half since the measure was last on the House floor gave him and others time to bring other lawmakers around. If the bill clears the House, it heads to Gov. Roy Cooper, who voiced concerns with the bill in August. His press office would say Wednesday only that the governor would review the measure and make a decision if it gets to his desk.

OPPONENTS SPEAK OUT ABOUT PERMIT THAT ALLOWS ENVIVA TO EXPAND WOOD PELLET OPERATIONS: The permit is the second of three the company is seeking this year for new or expanded pellet mills in the state. The first permit allowed Enviva to open a new plant in Hamlet in June, while the third would allow the company’s Northampton County plant near Roanoke Rapids to increase production by 46 percent. Rachel Weber of Asheville-based Dogwood Alliance says allowing Enviva to expand contradicts the Clean Energy Plan released by Gov. Roy Cooper last week, which says the state should not support burning wood pellets to create power, either at home or abroad. Dogwood Alliance and other groups have urged the Cooper administration to place a moratorium on new pellet production so the state can study the industry’s full impact on the environment. “The Cooper administration and the Department of Environmental Quality have explicitly recognized that wood pellet biomass should have no place in North Carolina’s clean energy future,” Weber said. “What we’re seeing is that the current system is set up to allow that industry to expand despite the unaccounted impacts on forests and climate and communities.”

TRUMP GROWS INCREASINGLY COMBATIVE AS IMPEACHMENT INQUIRY PROGRESSES: Separately, the Democrats accused Trump of “an incitement to violence” against a national security whistleblower and advised him and his administration not to intimidate potential witnesses in the impeachment inquiry. The whistleblower exposed a July phone call that Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which Trump pressed for an investigation of Democratic political rival Joe Biden and his family. Democrats say the pressure on Zelenskiy, on its own, constitutes an abuse of power worthy of impeachment scrutiny. In appearances in the Oval Office and a joint press conference with the president of Finland, Trump displayed an unusual show of anger as he defended what he has called his “perfect” phone call with Zelenskiy. He suggested, without evidence, that House intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff may have committed treason, and, again without evidence, labeled Biden and his son “stone cold crooked.” At one point, Trump demanded that a reporter pressing him on his dealings with Ukraine move on. “Ask the president of Finland a question, please,” he said, emphasizing each word, eventually labeling the reporter “corrupt.”

TRUMP DRAGGED PENCE INTO UKRAINIAN SCANDAL: In his meeting with Zelensky, Pence conveyed the news that hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Ukraine was not going to be released amid concerns about the country’s lagging efforts to combat corruption. He also emphasized Trump’s frustration that he thought the European Union was not doing a sufficient job in helping to provide aid. A participant in the meeting said Zelensky was “crestfallen” by the news, though a second participant described the meeting as “cordial” and Zelensky as understanding of U.S. concerns. At that point, Ukraine’s president had already spoken to Trump and was familiar with the president’s demands. Pence did not mention Biden or the dormant probe of Burisma, the company for which his son had served as a board member. But former officials said that Pence’s emphasis on corruption probably would have been interpreted by Zelensky as “code” for that issue, whether the vice president intended it or not. A top Pence staffer rejected the charge that the vice president was conveying an inappropriate — or coded — message from the president. In late August, with a hurricane bearing down on Florida, Trump canceled a trip to Poland, where he was scheduled to attend a World War II commemoration and meet with Zelensky to discuss the frozen U.S. aid. Instead he sent Pence, with instructions to “take the measure” of the Ukrainian leader and inform him that the administration wasn’t going to release the aid until it had assurances that Zelensky was committed to fighting corruption, U.S. officials said.