While public schools advocates are rightfully gnashing their teeth over the Senate's proposed budget cuts—we're awaiting the House's version of financial wisdom—there is an urgent educational issue that few people are discussing.
The Senate plan would close the 24-bed Wright School, a last resort for children ages 6–12 with severe emotional, mental, neurological and developmental disabilities who can't attend regular school. It is located in Durham but has served kids from throughout the state since 1963.
Many Wright School kids have already been institutionalized because of their behavior. In fact, without intervention, they could wind up in psychiatric hospitals or prisons as adults.
Some kids have developmental delays and have emotional disturbances; others have autism; still others have been diagnosed with illnesses such as oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity.
The guillotine has swung over the Wright School before. In April 2009, INDY Week profiled families whose children benefited from the intensive therapy and education there.
The adult-to-student ratio in treatment groups is 4 to 1. For roughly six months, the kids—about 50 total per year—live at the school five days a week and then go home on the weekends.
Wright is ineligible for Medicaid reimbursement, placing the financial onus on the state and its Department of Health and Human Services. At $45,000 per student each year, that sounds like a lot of money —until you consider the annual cost of keeping one kid in a Youth Development Center: $104,000.
The social costs are even greater.
We almost asked Gov. Pat McCrory to sign our copy of The Communist Manifesto when he proposed increasing the number of pre-K slots by 5,000, so imagine our collectivist gasp to learn the Senate wants to cut pre-K slots by 7,500 over two years. The budget also eliminates teacher assistants for grades 2 and 3 while increasing class sizes. Because nothing says learning like 35 kids in a classroom.
Four out of five state senators prefer Camels: The budget also cuts funding for tobacco prevention programs—on the heels of a legislative proposal to lift major portions of the smoking ban. Did we miss the budget line that offers free lung transplants to all North Carolinians?
Oxycontin with a gin and tonic chaser: Three state-run alcohol and drug abuse inpatient treatment centers would close under the Senate proposal. A total of 4,590 people were admitted to those centers in 2011, an increase of 2.4 percent over 2010, according to state health department data. The number of admissions has increased every year except one since 2002.
Senate to rural North Carolina: Drop dead. The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, which has paid more than $600 million in aid over 26 years for sewer, water and other infrastructure projects, has somehow earned the ire of Senate Republicans. The Senate is proposing to defund the center of its $16.6 million budget. (McCrory was, ahem, kinder, gutting it by only a third.) Instead, the Senate would create a new division within the Commerce Department, which lawmakers and the guv could populate with their cronies. That's what Senate Republicans mean when they announce they want a say in how money is spent: More for their special interests, less for you.
Apart from the budget, several pernicious bills could advance this week: Senate Bill 76, the Domestic Energy Jobs Act, would fuel the state's sprint toward fracking. It's in the Commerce and Job Development Committee Wednesday at 10 a.m. Stick around for more action at noon when the Public Utilities and Energy Committee considers a resolution to confirm Jerry Dockham and James Patterson to the powerful utilities commission.
Dockham is a Republican House member from Davidson County. His claim to fame is that in 2012 he voted to adopt a conference report that prohibits the Coastal Resources Commission from calculating sea level changes until 2016.
Patterson, of Guilford County, is CEO of public relations firm Patterson Partners, which specializes in "reputation management" and "influencer relationship management." That should come in handy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Breathe deep the gathering gloom."