While Gov. Pat McCrory and state Republican lawmakers say the amount of money North Carolina will spend on kindergarten through 12th-grade education will go up this year, local school officials say they are preparing for budget cuts that will mean fewer teacher assistants in the classroom and less money for textbooks and other education materials.
Two local school districts have already reduced the number of teacher assistants for the 2013-14 school year as a result of their expectation of less state money. The Perquimans County Board of Education voted Tuesday morning to eliminate five teacher assistant positions while the Edenton-Chowan Board of Education voted Monday night to eliminate four teacher assistant positions.
Perquimans Schools Superintendent Dwayne Stallings said the school district had already anticipated cutting 6½ teacher positions this year, but had not planned on eliminating any teacher assistant positions.
The Perquimans schools will also see its funding of classroom materials cut to $52,548 — Perquimans had been planning on receiving about $107,000, based on student enrollment projections for the upcoming year. Textbook funding will also be reduced to $26,000.
“What’s happened in the past few years in North Carolina is we’ve had discretionary cuts,” Stallings said, referring to general funding reductions that allowed school districts to decide where to spend money to cover deficits. “But what’s happened now is they’re actually giving us line-item reductions. And one of those was teacher positions and teacher assistant positions.”
Facing a reduction in state funding of $831,385, Edenton-Chowan Schools officials last week discussed the possibility of cutting as many as 8½ teaching positions and eight teacher assistant positions. Because 7½ teacher positions had not been filled, however, the district faced having to lay off only one teacher. That prospect ended when a teacher expected to return next year left the district.
As for the teacher assistants, the school district was able to trim the number of lost positions in half through retirements and attrition.
“If there’s any bright spot, that’s it,” Edenton-Chowan Schools Superintendent Allan Smith said, referring to the fact that fewer jobs than anticipated will be lost.
Smith said the district also faces a 50 percent reduction in funding of classroom materials — it received $132,631 last year, versus $64,926 this year — and a 78 percent reduction in funding of textbooks.
“To say the proposed budget is a disappointment is an extreme understatement,” Smith said.
Cook: Funding went up
State Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, who represents seven counties in the northeastern part of the state, including Chowan and Perquimans, said he is surprised by the cuts school districts are preparing to make.
“The education budget went up,” Cook said, referring to the state’s $7.86 billion lawmakers appropriated for public schools next year. “The amount of money we put in education went up.”
State Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, also defended the amount lawmakers are spending on education. Steinburg, who represents the school districts in five area counties, said in a statement that the budget lawmakers approved increases K-12 spending by 2.1 percent when compared to what the schools actually spent in the two-year period from 2011-13. He also noted that overall, spending on all state education, both public schools and colleges, next year — $11.5 billion — is “more money ... than has ever spent on education in North Carolina.”
Gov. McCrory also said during a speech in Chapel Hill earlier this month that the budget will spend $23 million more on K-12 spending than last year.
But according to a story in The News & Observer of Raleigh, “the legislation specifies public schools will get $117 million less than what they would have if lawmakers changed nothing and accounted for increased enrollment and inflation.”
McCrory’s Office of State Budget and Management also told lawmakers earlier this year that it would cost $7.98 billion to keep public school education services at the same level as last year.
Commenting on the budget late last month, state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said in a statement that she is “truly worried” about students for the first time in her 30 years in education.
“With this budget, North Carolina has moved away from its commitment to quality public schools,” Atkinson said. “I am disappointed for the children in our state who will have fewer educators and resources in their schools as a result of the General Assembly’s budget.”
Atkinson noted that “thousands of teacher and teacher assistant positions” are likely to be eliminated because of the budget.
State Rep. Annie Mobley, D-Hertford, also expressed concern about Republican lawmakers’ decision to spend $10 million this year funding private school tuition — the state’s new “Opportunity Scholarships” program — at the same time public school districts will be getting less money.
“Listening to both sides of the aisle, I’m pretty well convinced that there’s a move afoot to dismantle public education,” said Mobley, who represents part of Pasquotank County. “We should not cut away one, to fund the other. Public schools should be the first choice.”
Steinburg, however, said the Opportunity Scholarships will give children who are disabled or from low-income families the same opportunity to attend private school that children from wealthier families now have.
“It is part of North Carolina’s ongoing effort to create new, innovative programs so that kids with high potential and low opportunities do not fall through the cracks,” he said.
James Agar, business administrator for Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, said his district is preparing for a $2.1 million cut in state funding, a reduction of $298,000 over last year’s funding. As a result, the district will lose 19½ teaching positions, 14 teacher assistant positions, one instructional support position and $4,000 in funds used for the English as a Second Language program. The district also will receive 78 percent less funding this year for text books and 50 percent less for classroom materials.
Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Schools Superintendent Linwood Williams said he plans to find a way to pay for the 34 teaching and teacher assistant positions. Currently, the school system has frozen new hires and is looking at moving teachers around to fill vacancies. The district is also considering sharing certain positions between schools and it may not refill some open positions. Elizabeth City-Pasquotank will also use funding earmarked for instructional materials and technology to pay for some of the eliminated positions.
Cuts hit Camden staff
Like Williams, Camden County Schools Superintendent Melvin Hawkins said he plans to fund his district’s teaching and teacher assistant positions that the state will not be paying for this year. Camden will lose funding for six teaching positions and four teacher assistant positions.
“We are going to absorb all of these through this year’s fund balance,” said Hawkins, referring to the school district’s savings account.
Camden schools also saw its funding for classroom materials cut nearly in half this year. The school district was expecting about $113,000 for the item, but is receiving $58,084. Textbook funding also took a hit; Camden will receive $98,000 less for school books this year.
To cover the cuts to textbook and classroom materials funding, Hawkins said the school system will likely have to depend on private donations. Parent-teacher groups at individual schools will also lend a hand with fundraising, he said.
“It’s not a pleasant picture,” Hawkins said. “I want to fight for public schools. Educators across the state do a fantastic job. Just give us the opportunity to be successful.”
Currituck County Schools Superintendent Allison Sholar declined to comment specifically on how the state budget will affect the Currituck schools. But she criticized lawmakers’ move to end pay supplements for teachers with master’s or other advanced degrees if not earned by April 1.
“I am appalled by the message our legislators are sending to parents, students and educators in this state,” Sholar said in an email. “As usual, teachers are being asked to do more with less while being discouraged from strengthening their skills through advanced degrees for which they no longer will be compensated. If legislators value all of the children in this state, why are they attacking the best resources our children have which is our teachers? It’s a very sad day for North Carolina.”
Steinburg acknowledged the budget does end pay supplements for teachers who earn a master’s degree, but only if the advanced degree isn’t required for their job. He also noted that teachers already collecting the supplement or who earn their master’s degree before April 1 will still collect the additional pay.
The Daily Advance Staff Writer Rita Frankenberry, Chowan Herald Staff Writer Rebecca Bunch and The Perquimans Weekly News Editor Peter Williams contributed to this report.