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GOP fails to override Cooper's veto on school reopening

RALEIGH — The N.C. General Assembly failed on Monday by one vote, 29-20, to override the governor’s veto of a bill to reopen schools, even as students suffer academically and opinion polls show residents want children back in the classroom.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 37 came about 10 minutes before 5 p.m. Friday. Republican leaders of the General Assembly immediately vowed to override the veto, initially predicting a number of Democratic legislators would break ranks and vote in favor of at least partial in-person learning for children.

“Three Democratic senators — Sens. Kirk DeViere, Paul Lowe and Ben Clark — prioritized children’s interests when the bill passed the first time,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a news release. “If they stick to their convictions and side again with the overwhelming majority of parents, this bill will almost certainly become law.”

It wasn't to be. At least two of the lawmakers signaled on social media and through media outlets on Monday they would side with the governor.

“After some careful consideration, I will be voting to sustain the governor’s veto," said Lowe, of Forsyth County. "Our students and teachers must come back to a healthy learning environment. I hope we can come to a compromise.”

In an email to WRAL, Clark said it would “be prudent” for the General Assembly to make the changes Cooper asked for. Clark asked that he be excused from Monday night’s session. The request was granted.

And that may have been the difference.

Berger, before Monday’s vote, said concerns from Democrats and Cooper were laid out and addressed, and the bill passed.

“The current situation is damaging children … in ways that in some respects may be irreparable for some of those children,” he said.

Further, most school personnel will have been vaccinated by the time the bill became effective. Democrats’ vote, he intimated, was based on party allegiance.

Cooper said the measure “threatens public health” and fell short in two critical areas.

“First, it allows students in middle and high school to go back into the classroom in violation of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and CDC health guidelines," he said. "Second, it hinders local and state officials from protecting students and teachers during an emergency.”

The move from the governor comes even as enrollment declines, an education gap widens and children are increasingly experiencing problems related to their mental health. N.C. public schools have been intermittently closed for nearly a year. Some districts chose to reopen elementary schools last fall, though other districts have remained fully remote. Many middle schools and high schools had been closed until this month.

Educators have warned that record numbers of students are failing classes this year, and an unusually high percentage have been chronically absent.

Test results, which will be shared at Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting, show the majority of high school students failed to pass state end-of-course exams given in the fall, the News & Observer reported.

The risks of keeping children out of the classroom outweighs that of bringing them back, say lawmakers who back the bill. Students, especially those on individual education plans, are now more isolated than ever, they say.

Republican leaders in the Legislature accuse Cooper and Democrats of siding with the N.C. Association of Educators over parents and residents who want children back in school.

“With teacher vaccinations in full swing, there is no legitimate excuse for Gov. Cooper and the far-left NCAE to oppose the broad reopening flexibility this bill grants to school districts,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, a sponsor of S.B. 37 and co-chair of the Senate Education Committee.

The state teachers’ group is the state affiliate of the National Education Association teachers union.

“The far-left NCAE owns the governor’s mansion,” Ballard added.

Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, in echoing Cooper, said Monday night he agreed that students need to return to in-person learning, but it must be done “safely and responsibly.”

Cooper’s first veto of 2021 extends his state record to 54. Since the N.C. governor gained veto power in 1997, no other chief executive in the state has vetoed more than 20 bills.

While lawmakers voted to override 23 of 28 Cooper vetoes during the governor’s first two years in office in 2017-18, all 25 vetoes he issued in 2019-20 withstood legislative challenge. The difference? Republicans held legislative supermajorities in 2017-18. They lost supermajorities in the 2018 election. Since 2019 they have needed Democratic support to overcome the governor’s objections.