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Advocates, administrators: ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ is a burden for Chatham County Schools

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Advocates, administrators: ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ is a burden for Chatham County Schools

Sep 13, 2023 | 12:00 pm ET
By Greg Childress
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Advocates, administrators: ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ is a burden for Chatham County Schools
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Public Strong School advocates listen during a Chatham County Board of Education meeting. Photo/Greg Childress

Days before a legal deadline, Chatham County public school leaders are struggling to implement provisions contained in Senate Bill 49, a controversial bill that became state law in mid-August and that requires educators to alert parents if their child changes their name or pronoun at school. It also restricts instruction about gender identity and sexuality in K-4 classrooms.

Public school districts statewide have until Friday Sept. 15 to incorporate policy provisions required by the new law.

Like many school leaders, Chatham officials have spent the first weeks of the new school year juggling regular duties while trying to get a handle on the so-called “Parents Bill of Rights” and its effect on students, teachers and parents.

Advocates, administrators: ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ is a burden for Chatham County Schools
Superintendent Anthony Jackson Photo/Chatham County Schools

“This is probably the most sweeping piece of legislation I’ve seen in terms of just trying to understand its depth and breadth over time,” Superintendent Anthony Jackson told the Chatham County Board of Education on Monday.

Putting SB 49 requirements in place comes at a painfully inopportune time. The rural, growing school district of roughly 9,000 students, like many others, is struggling to fill vacancies for bus drivers and math and special needs teachers.

Instead of focusing on those pressing needs, Jackson said, the district’s leadership has spent inordinate time on SB 49.

“We’re now talking about how we might be able to provide additional resources to hire teachers, to incentivize hiring teachers, to get more math teachers, this [SB 49] is what our instructional people have had to spend their time on — not getting our new teachers prepared to teach mathematics, not getting our new teachers prepared to plan good lessons,” Jackson said.

Assistant Superintendent Amanda Moran told the school board that much of the early work has focused on ensuring current policies comply with SB 49. Many of the “parents’ rights” already exist in current policy and law, Moran said.

Part of the district’s challenge is to determine “what we already have in place and what’s actually new in the law,” Moran said.

Jackson said Moran’s time would be better spent helping to prepare young teachers to be successful this school year. “Dr. [Amanda] Moran’s job is the assistant superintendent for instruction,” Jackson said. “We’ve got new teachers right now who need support in classrooms, and this is what we’re spending our time on.”

There’s at least a chance Chatham County — and all public school districts — could get a reprieve. Last week, state Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the State Board of Education that school districts need more time to meet SB 49 requirements.

“There is a lot of concern about the timing of the passage of this bill — very, very bad timing for our school leaders,” Truitt said. “Because of that timing, we have been advocating along with many others that the deadlines and effectiveness dates for many of these things that our districts and our charters are compelled to do be bumped to Jan. 1.”

Truitt said she and others with concerns are talking with lawmakers about extending the Sept. 15 deadline. Truitt said she feels positive about the direction those talks are going. At press time, however, neither the House nor the Senate had any committee meetings scheduled, nor any bills calendared for Wednesday or Thursday. Lawmakers do not normally meet on Fridays.

SB 49 has been as time-consuming for district leaders as it has been controversial for lawmakers. Democrats and Republicans intensely debated the bill before the state Senate approved it on a 26-13 party line vote, with all Republicans voting in favor and Democrats voting no.

Democrats see SB 49 as an attack on LGBTQ students and their parents. They worry that LGBTQ students with unsupportive parents could be harmed if they’re outed. Republicans, however, say they believe parents have a right to know such information, regardless of circumstances.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, but the GOP leadership mounted a successful override on Aug. 16. That sent school districts scrambling to implement legally required policies ahead of the Sept. 15 deadline.

The veto override also set into motion Public School Strong, a statewide coalition of progressive parents and public school advocates, which recently launched a “September Surge for Public Schools” campaign to push back against “legislative attacks” on public education. Hundreds of parents are expected to attend school board meetings in more than 40 counties throughout the month to speak up for public education.

On Monday, more than a dozen coalition members attended the Chatham school board meeting to speak against SB 49 and to show support for school leaders as they struggle to meet the new requirements.

“It is obvious that SB 49 was created to be a distraction, an example of culture wars at their worst, but this legislation is also incredibly damaging to our LGBTQIA students, parents and staff,” said Emily Boynton, a Chatham County parent.

Parent Julie Ricker worries that SB 49 will make it difficult for the districts to recruit and retain teachers.

“Please do everything you can to support them in allowing them to teach honest and accurate content,” Ricker said. “They should not shy away from important topics or purge their bookshelves out of fear or complaint or controversy.”

She asked district leaders to spare teachers of “time impediments” caused by SB 49 so that they can focus on “solving real challenge they face in their efforts to facilitate student academic progress and support their overall well being.”

“At a time when it is so hard to attract new professionals into education fields and retain the talented teachers we currently have, I ask that you do everything you can to ensure that educators know that they are safe, protected and valued within our district,” Ricker said.

SB 49 comes as districts across the state have fielded parental complaints about books some deem inappropriate for students, as well as challenges to classroom materials. Jackson noted that the legislation did not include funding. Staffers anticipate that there could be costs associated with SB 49 for legal advice, support services, staffing needs, software support for required reporting and fees for resolving parental complaints and challenges to district actions.

Parent Emily Martine, a Public School Strong member, said the district could reduce some of the anticipated costs if it tweaked board policy to limit the inspection of (and objection to) instructional material to parents or guardians of Chatham County students.

“The vast majority of Chatham County parents know that clogging up the system with demands to inspect materials and requests to ban books will not help us attract and retain top-notch educators,” Martine said. “Unfortunately, there is a vocal, extremist minority in this county that is backed by a strong national organization. We don’t need people from surrounding counties or Florida or Texas flooding our district with complaints.”

Moms for Liberty launched a local chapter in Chatham County in March 2022. The nonprofit has accused educators of indoctrinating children and focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion at the expense of reading and math instruction. In Wake County, the organization was responsible for nearly 200 book challenges.