Governor’s School alums appeal to keep state money for the enrichment program

Sen. Chad Barefoot
Sen. Chad Barefoot N&O file photo

Devoted alumni of a high school summer enrichment program – who don’t want this year’s class to be the last – are flooding state legislators with testimonials on how the experience changed their lives.

The Governor’s School of North Carolina is a program for gifted high school students that has them pursue academic and artistic endeavors for 5 1/2 weeks on a college campus. The program, started by Gov. Terry Sanford, is more than 50 years old and is recognized as the first program of its type in the nation. It will enroll 670 students this summer.

With the school in jeopardy, former students have rallied to save it.

“There’s been an outpouring of support by people who describe it as a life-changing experience,” said Lee Conner, president of The Foundation for the Governor’s School of North Carolina.

A Senate proposal would strip out the $800,000 in state money to run the program in the 2018-19 budget year. The Senate budget would use $600,000 of that money to revive a different summer program, the Legislative School for Leadership and Public Service. The other $200,000 would go to a four-week science, math and engineering residential program run by the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics.

The Legislative School started in 1985 as a three-week residential school for students from rural areas and lasted until 2009. In its later years, it operated as a two-week program at university campuses in the eastern and western ends of the state.

Students focused on public speaking and leadership, and some of the sessions focused on ideas found in books such as the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican and an education budget writer.

Barefoot said the intent was not to eliminate the Governor’s School, but to expand student leadership and public service opportunities.

The Governor’s School could continue in some form without state funds using the $500 per student tuition students or their districts pay, he said, while “state funding is being used to expand STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and leadership.”

Conner said tuition and private fundraising would not be enough to keep the Governor’s School alive.

“If their proposal goes forward, there will not be a Governor’s School in 2018,” said Conner. “It will be over.”

Private fundraising saved the program in 2012 after it was cut from the state budget. In an intense campaign, the alumni group was able to scrape together enough money from individual donors and foundations to keep the program going with a reduced enrollment of 550 students attending for a shortened term.

The alumni couldn’t do that again, Conner said. The foundations they leaned on understood that the money was a one-time life preserver. The alumni group uses its money to provide need-based scholarships to students who can’t afford the tuition. The foundation is spending $23,000 on 46 scholarships this year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Students nominated by their schools or districts spend their weeks in the program studying their academic or artistic specialty and learning how the disciplines connect.

It’s the sharing of ideas with other smart students that makes the experience special, said Conner, who studied math in summer 1991.

“I was exposed to people who were brilliant in science, and English, and math, and Spanish,” he said.

Alumni are blanketing House leaders and budget writers with emails and telephone calls hoping to rescue the program.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican and education budget writer, said he’s received hundreds of emails supporting the Governor’s School, and some legislators are graduates.

“It’s a highly desirable and impressive program,” he said. Despite the state’s $580 million revenue surplus, budget writers have to be careful with money and focus on education priorities, Horn said. It’s not good practice to pay for an ongoing program with one-time money, he said.

House budget writers are working hard on their proposal, Horn said, and are examining revenue figures to determine how much money the state can count on from year to year.

“I would like to see the Governor’s School continue,” Horn said. “I don’t know if we have the recurring money necessary to do that.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner