A look at the roots of secretive education nonprofit’s ‘membership dues’

Sen. Gerry Hancock and Sherwood Smith – image via the Public School Forum website

RALEIGH — A secretive education nonprofit with stated “equity” objectives and that funds itself in part through membership dues paid for by school districts across the state using taxpayer dollars was formed as a project of a Raleigh law firm. 

The Innovation Project (TIP) “formally began on July 1, 2015,” according to the group’s website. The organization was co-founded by Gerry Hancock and Ann McColl as “a service of the Raleigh law firm, Everett Gaskins Hancock LLP.”  

In addition to TIP, Hancock also founded the education website EducationNC along with Ferrell Guillory, who is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and serves as vice chairman of EducationNC. 

According to the Everett Gaskins Hancock website, “The firm’s attorneys have been instrumental in the formation of notable nonprofit organizations such as the Public School Forum of North Carolina, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, and EducationNC, and have successfully advocated on behalf of North Carolina’s Low Wealth Schools Consortium for the enforcement of every child’s right to a sound, basic education.” 

The firm’s website does not list The Innovation Project among its achievements but does say that one of their attorney’s was the founding chair of the over 30-year-old Public School Forum of North Carolina, an education nonprofit that says its “key purpose” has been to “speak truth to power.”  The attorney involved was Hancock, who at that time was senator in the North Carolina General Assembly.  

The Public School Forum’s mission is to “provide trusted, nonpartisan, evidence-based research, policy analysis and innovative programs that empower an informed public to demand that education best practice becomes common practice throughout North Carolina.” 

Similar to TIP, the NC Public School Forum’s “about page” notes it also received its seed money from the left-leaning Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.  

Notably, Hancock was one of the lawyers who kicked off the long-running Leandro case that originated in 1994 in the Hoke County school district. Years prior, then-Hoke County Superintendent Bill Harrison recruited Robb Leandro to serve as the case’s lead plaintiff in the suit Hancock was preparing. At that time, Hancock was an attorney with the Low Wealth Schools Consortium, a group of high-poverty school systems in the state. Hancock’s suit ended up bringing together superintendents from four North Carolina counties in an effort to sue the state for not meeting financial obligations to students in those districts.  

Other organizations Everett Gaskins and Hancock list among its “community” page include the Advisory Committee to the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the North Carolina Common Cause Board of Directors. 

The firm also represented Roy Cooper when he was the state’s attorney general in a 2009 case involving the “Dogwood Gun Club” and a biannual pigeon shoot. 

McColl was hired into the firm as part of its education practice group. Prior to joining Everett Gaskins Hancock, McColl was general counsel for the N.C. Association of Educators, an offshoot of the National Education Association, one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions.  

She also served as legislative director of the State Board of Education, as well as legal counsel to both the North Carolina Association of School Administrators and the North Carolina School Superintendents Association. 

In the fairly recent past, McColl was notably involved with the Halifax County School District Board of Education in a case about reinstatement of the contract for a former superintendent, Dr. Elease Frederick, whom McColl represented. 

An investigation by North State Journal into TIP uncovered the group funds itself in part through taxpayer dollars by charging public school districts a membership fee.  

Some 33 districts were identified as having ties to TIP and North State Journal found that 29 of those districts made payments to TIP totaling $2,048,800 million for the time period spanning 2017 through 2021.  

About A.P. Dillon 747 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_