NC Senate fails to override Cooper’s veto on schools bill, but vote might be reconsidered

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan
·9 min read
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The North Carolina Senate on Monday night failed to override a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper to reopen schools, a move that would seem end the Legislature’s efforts to require public school districts to offer students some form of in-person learning.

The vote was 29-20, falling one vote short of the supermajority needed to override. Because the override failed, it won’t go to the House, ending the life of the bill.

But on Tuesday evening, Senate leadership said there could be another vote after all.

Senate Republicans announced they would vote on a motion Wednesday to reconsider the override because one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Ben Clark, wasn’t present for the vote. If the motion passes, the veto override would be added to the Senate calendar for another vote at least a day later.

Senate Bill 37 would have required Plan A, or an in-person option, for K-12 special needs students and for local districts to decide whether to open K-12 schools as Plan A or B, a mix of in-person and remote classes. Most schools are already have in-person classes in some form, but this would have required them to offer the option if they didn’t.

Cooper vetoed SB 37 Friday, saying he objected to the law not complying with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, which recommends several safety measures for schools like social distancing when possible and cohorts. Plan B includes six feet of social distancing, while Plan A does not.

Republican senators only needed two Democrats to vote with them to override the governor’s veto.

“I do think that it’s clear we have made a serious effort to try to get schools reopened,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, after the vote Monday night.

Clark was one of three Democratic senators who previously voted in favor of SB 37. Sens. Kirk deViere and Paul Lowe were the other two.

But Monday night, Lowe changed his vote to sustain the veto. DeViere voted in favor of the override. With Clark not there, the vote was 29-20.

Clark, from Hoke County, told the Associated Press on Tuesday he wasn’t at the vote because he had to work. He is a defense contractor at Fort Bragg.

In statement Tuesday, Berger said he wants “to provide Sen. Clark the opportunity to advance the bill that bears his name.”

“Sen. Ben Clark co-sponsored Senate Bill 37 and voted for its passage the first time around. He was absent from yesterday’s veto override attempt, and if he voted ‘yes’ then the override would have been successful,” Berger said in a statement Tuesday.

Clark did not tell The AP Tuesday what his vote would have been. He told The AP it “would be considered disingenuous by most.”

Monday afternoon, Lowe, from Winston-Salem, signaled that he would change his vote.

After some careful consideration, I will be voting to sustain the Governor’s veto,” wrote Lowe in a statement. “Our students and teachers must come back to a healthy learning environment. I hope we can come to a compromise.”

Lowe explained his decision before Monday night’s to The News & Observer, saying Cooper had asked him to sustain the veto.

“He asked. I am a Democrat. He’s the governor, and a Democratic governor,” Lowe said. Lowe said Cooper contacted him Sunday night about it.

But he questioned why some schools are still closed while others are open. Lowe said schools in his district, Forsyth County, are open. He said he voted for the bill the first time because he thought, “We were going to have to do something.”

“I will say this. We have opened up a lot of stuff. All kinds of stuff,” Lowe said in an interview. “We’ve opened up all these different things, and schools aren’t open. For some children, it’s devastating. Some children are behind. They won’t catch up.”

On the Senate floor before the override vote, Sen. Deanna Ballard, co-chair of the Senate Education Committee and a bill sponsor, called the bill “critical” for North Carolina.

Test results that will be shared at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting show most high school students didn’t pass end-of-course exams for the fall semester, The News & Observer reported. Test data show that third-graders who took the beginning-of-grade reading test also struggled, with about 75% not proficient.

Senate Leader Phil Berger, left, speaks on the Senate floor Monday, March 1, 2021 at North Carolina General Assembly before a failed veto override vote on SB 37, the schools reopening bill Gov. Cooper vetoed. Some North Carolina schools have been remote-only for nearly a year.
Senate Leader Phil Berger, left, speaks on the Senate floor Monday, March 1, 2021 at North Carolina General Assembly before a failed veto override vote on SB 37, the schools reopening bill Gov. Cooper vetoed. Some North Carolina schools have been remote-only for nearly a year.

Cooper explains veto

On Monday afternoon, Cooper released a statement ahead of the expected Senate override vote to repeat his concerns. He said he has asked legislative leaders to compromise with him on those two issues, but said they haven’t so far.

“The question on SB 37 that I vetoed is not whether our children should be in the classroom in person,” Cooper said. “They absolutely should. The question is whether we do it safely. The bill allows middle and high school students to be in school without following NCDHHS and CDC guidelines on social distancing.”

He also said he would like local districts to have control over the decision to return to in-person classes so they can make adjustments if coronavirus cases surge again.

“I will continue talking with legislators, and I will work diligently with the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to make sure all of our children and educators are in the classroom, in person and safe,” Cooper said.

In a statement after the override vote, deViere, of Cumberland County, said his vote “was not one I took lightly.” He was the only Democrat who voted for the override.

He said his vote came after conversations with parents, children, educators, colleagues, community leaders and administrators. Without SB 37 in place, he said, “It is critical for the State School Board of Education to step forward and ensure our school districts have a plan to reopen for in-person learning.”

DeViere also said he asked Cooper a month ago for a path to reopening, and will also contact the state board and state schools Superintendent Catherine Truitt to request their help for a reopening plan.

The debate over schools comes as the state’s coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have stabilized since a post-holiday surge of cases as well as COVID-19-related deaths. January was the deadliest month of the pandemic in North Carolina since it began last March.

Friday, Cooper eased some of the restrictions that have been in place since December, including lifting a curfew and allowing for increased capacity in bars and athletic venues.

Watauga Republican Sen. Deanna Ballard, center, speaks on the Senate floor prior to a failed veto override vote on SB 37, the schools reopening bill Gov. Cooper vetoed, Monday, March 1, 2021 at North Carolina General Assembly. Some North Carolina schools have been remote-only for nearly a year.
Watauga Republican Sen. Deanna Ballard, center, speaks on the Senate floor prior to a failed veto override vote on SB 37, the schools reopening bill Gov. Cooper vetoed, Monday, March 1, 2021 at North Carolina General Assembly. Some North Carolina schools have been remote-only for nearly a year.

Teacher, parent concerns

Most school districts have already had months of in-person instruction, but about 20 of the state’s 115 school districts have been remote-only all school year so far. Durham Public Schools, for example, had plans to remain virtual the entire year until recently.

Meanwhile, teachers, school staff and childcare workers in North Carolina became eligible for vaccinations starting Feb. 24. Cooper moved educators and childcare workers to the start vaccination group that includes other front-line essential workers.

Senate Republican leaders have blamed Cooper’s veto on the N.C. Association of Educators, an education advocacy organization that opposes the bill. NCAE held a press conference Monday afternoon before the Senate met.

Meredith Newman, a Cabarrus County second-grade teacher, said her school is already open under Plan A for preK-3 and would add fourth and fifth grades later this month. Newman, who has received a vaccine, said she is concerned about community spread in her county.

Elizabeth Budd, an elementary school teacher in New Hanover County, also received her vaccine. She’d like there to be six feet of social distancing for all K-12 grades, including elementary schools.

“Everyone else deserves six feet of social distancing during a pandemic so why don’t students and educators deserve it as well?” Budd said.

NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said the organization isn’t asking schools already open under Plan A to close, but that they would like social distancing to be increased at elementary schools. She suggested looking at innovative ways to add distancing space and still accommodate all students. She said schools could have classes in gyms, cafeterias or libraries.

“However, our politicians are not thinking of innovative solutions to these problems,” Kelly told reporters. “They are perfectly fine pushing public school educators and employees into school buildings without the six feet of physical distancing, which does not comply with the CDC guidance.”

Other front-line essential workers can be vaccinated starting March 10. Vaccinations for North Carolinians age 65 and older and health care workers have been underway.

Amy Thomas of Cary is a parent of three students in the Wake County Public Schools System — a third-grader, seventh-grader and 10th-grader. She emailed all the Democrats who previously voted in favor of the bill to ask them to override the veto.

“Thank you for showing that kind of courage in our current political environment,” Thomas wrote, adding that she is a registered independent and “have always viewed the Democratic Party as the one who supports the underdogs and especially public education.”

“The reality is we have to figure out how to do the things that matter to our society even during a pandemic,” Thomas said. “Public education is one of the most important things our local government does. Unfortunately, this year has proven that remote learning doesn’t work for a large chunk of our kids.”

Thomas said approving Senate Bill 37 to allow schools to reopen for in-person classes is “necessary.”

“We have a leadership failure and need our representatives and senators to fill the void,” Thomas said.

What’s next

Berger told reporters there could be another bill to reopen classes.

“I don’t know what it would look like,” Berger said. “I don’t think we’ll just say, ‘That’s it.’”

One route that has been discussed is to pass local bills, but no decision made yet. Local bills can become law without any action by the governor.

Now, if the motion passes to schedule another override ride passes with a simple majority on Wednesday, another override vote could go to the floor at least a day later.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Spotify. Apple Podcasts. Stitcher. iHeartRadio. Amazon Music, Megaphone or wherever you get your podcasts.