Debate continues on education funding
Last Thursday, the North Carolina Legislature approved the final Republican-penned state government budget for next year. The proposed budget, which is currently being reviewed by Gov. Bev Perdue, doesn't call for an increase in taxes, but fails to fund public school to the extent for which Gov. Beverly Perdue and fellow Democrats have rallied.
Both the House and Senate held individual sessions to address their concerns on the budget, and after separate debates, members agreed and voted — 71-41 House vote and 30-15 Senate vote — for a $20.2 billion spending plan, which calls for adjustments to the second year of the two-year budget previously approved in 2011. The proposed budget can remain stagnant on Gov. Perdue's desk for up to 10 days, during which time she can decide whether to veto the bill, sign it or let it become law without her signature. She vetoed the 2011 two-year budget plan, but along with several other of her vetoes, her budget veto was overridden.
In an initial statement released from Perdue's office on last Thursday evening, she was unimpressed with the budget proposal. “My top priority is increasing our investment in education so that we can prepare our children to compete in the 21st century economy. The budget passed today does not go far enough in restoring funding for public schools in North Carolina. I will continue to review the proposal, but it is my sincere hope that the General Assembly will find a way to do better in the days ahead.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Perdue had not declared whether or not she planned to veto the proposed budget, but did challenge lawmakers to continue working to fully invest in North Carolina education. Perdue charged the General Assembly to spend their remaining days in session, which is expected to conclude to have legislators home before the fireworks on July 4th, to explore all possible methods to fund eduction. The lawmakers have been scrutinized for being disinterested in the legislature at hand and have been accused of being sluggish in their efforts, displaying no alacrity whatsoever, in order to make it home before the holiday weekend.
"I'm calling on them to do more for the children of North Carolina," said Perdue. "They're going to be there for a few more days. They need to keep working. They need to reach down deep and do more for the children of this state, invest more in our children's future, invest more in education."
In response to Perdue's challenge, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis released a joint statement on Tuesday which read, "If Gov. Perdue truly cares about the best interests of North Carolina, she will sign this budget. From students attending public schools, to drivers filling up their tanks, to Medicaid patients recovering in our hospitals, every North Carolinian benefits from this budget. A veto would show that Gov. Perdue is more interested in playing politics than in budgeting responsibly."
Republican legislators across the state boasted about the proposal and said that they listened to the governor and met her challenge to fully fund education. “Our budget reforms and makes smart investments in public education, gives raises to teachers and state employees, fixes problems in Medicaid, and cuts the gas tax – without a job-destroying $1 billion tax hike,” said Sen. Berger (R-Rockingham.) “We worked in good faith to incorporate good ideas from both sides of the aisle, and we urge Gov. Perdue to sign this budget.”
According to a statement signed by Senator Jim Davis (R-50), the bill provides the first pay raise for public school teachers and state employees since 2008 and $251 million more to K-12 compared to what the two-year budget had allowed. “It provides public school teachers and state employees a 1.2 percent raise – the first raise since 2008,” said Davis. “Our community college and university systems are given funds for a 1.2 percent raise with flexibility on how to use this money to recruit, retain and reward excellent instructors. It fully funds the state retirement system and gives state retirees a 1 percent cost of living adjustment, This is the first adjustment since 2008.”
Davis’ statement said the proposed budget's impact on education continues to fully fund, at the state level, all classroom teachers and teaching assistants. “In fact, it increases state level funding for teachers to a higher amount than the last Perdue-Dalton budget,” said Davis. “It provides $27 million for an education reform program to strengthen student literacy, improve graduation rates, reward effective teachers and give parents tools to make better informed decisions about their children’s education.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Democrats shunned Republicans for their immediate boasts on the budget and stated they were misleading. During the opening of the Macon County Democratic headquarters on Saturday, Former Senator John Snow, who is running against Sen. Davis in November, stated that Republicans are unfairly seeking credit and praise for the budget. Snow pointed out that the $251 million figure in restoring education that Davis and other Republican members of the General Assembly are attempting to boast about is the total dollars the budget allocates for public education.
“Republicans came out saying they restored $251 million to the state's education budget, and funded the first salary increase since 2008, and well on the surface that seems great,” said Snow. “But after we took a closer look at their budget, that 1.2 percent salary increase comes from the $251 million, which drastically reduced the funding they actually allocated for vital educational programs.”
Democrats also noted that the overall savings projected by the budget includes a reduction in the state mandated reversion in which school districts are required to return a portion of their state allocation in the form of a discretionary reversion. The proposed budget reduced the previously estimated $503 million that school systems were expected to return to the state next school year was reduced to about $400 million.
Budget impact on Macon County
According to Macon County School's finance director Angie Cook, the reduction in the discretionary reversion should prove to have the biggest impact on Macon County and is a better break than originally expected. "The discretionary reversion is reduced by $424k," said Cook. "Although we will still have to figure out the best way to meet a $1,064,424 reversion but that is not as much as this year’s at $1,264,969."
Cook noted that the local education budget will also be affected by the 1.2 percent increase in salaries which includes non-certified and central office staff as well as an increase in the amount that Macon County Schools pays for health benefits and the retirement matching rate. The increase will result in different budget methods in order to direct the funds allocated from the state to fund the increase.
Democrats speculated that with the loss of federal education grants implemented by the Obama administration, schools in North Carolina are estimated to lose more than 3,000 teaching positions that were funded through the grants, a shortfall that the proposed budget fails to address.
House Representative Phil Haire (D-119) echoed Snow's concerns and expressed his discontent with the proposed budget. "The House and Senate approved a budget Thursday that keeps North Carolina moving backwards," said Haire. "A year after losing 6,000 public school educators – including 3,000 teachers and teacher assistants – this budget leaves schools with $190 million less than they had last year. The total reduction to funding for K-12 education over two years will reach $650 million. Financial aid for UNC system students has been cut by $22 million."
According to Haire, the proposed budget does not fully invest in public education and instead reflects continuing cuts. "This budget not only does not repair any of the damage last year’s budget did to schools, it cuts an additional $190 million from the schools. This year’s cut alone is the equivalent of 3,400 teaching jobs," he said. "Pre- Kindergarten programs were reduced by $16 million (20 percent). Smart Start was cut by $34 million. They have failed to meet the conditions set out by a judge who ruled their changes violated the state constitution."
While state officials battle it out over the budget, regardless of the outcome, Macon County's school system has to make immediate financial decisions in order to prepare for the next school year. During June's regularly scheduled meeting of the Macon County Board of Education, Dan Moore, Director of Personnel for the school system, informed board members that Macon County is facing a serious overcrowding problem in several schools in the district.
According to Moore's report, four out of the six schools with kindergarten through third grade classrooms are not only exceeding the district's policy for maximum capacity, but where enrollment currently stands, are projected to exceed the state's maximum capacity numbers. At Cartoogechaye Elementary, the first and third grade class enrollment exceeds the state's allowed capacity; kindergarten through third grade classes at East Franklin and Iotla Valley; and kindergarten through second grade at South Macon. Highlands and Nantahala are the only schools in the district not faced with the issue.
Moore informed the board that the school district's objective (Macon County Schools Objective 2.2.2) states “Preservation of small class sizes at or below the state's average for K-3. Not only is Macon County not at or below the state's average, enrollment numbers exceed the state's maximum allowance.
In order to address the problem before the Aug. 9 school start date, Moore informed the board that one option is for additional teachers to be hired to reduce class sizes. Moore also stated that another option would be to reevaluate the board's previous decision to allow students to attend the school of their choice, even if it may fall outside of a school site’s district. Moore explained that during school site consolidation of schools such as Cowee and Iotla, students were allowed to remain at their school, even if they were redistricted into a different site. This is one of the factors that can be attributed to the overcrowding issue that the board may decide to change in hopes of finding a solution.
On Tuesday morning Moore met with several district employees with intentions of formulating a plan to bring to school board members to address the issue. The meeting went well,” said Moore. “We are continuing to analyze data and hope to have two or three options to present to the board in short order.”
Moore also informed the board of several ongoing interviews for multiple vacancies in the school district. According to Moore, when school starts back in the fall, Macon County Schools will have 32 new faces which is expected to include 26 new certified employees and six non-certified employees.
“It is my hope that all available personnel positions will be filled during the July 23rd BOE meeting,” Moore informed the board Monday night. According to Moore, Macon County is in a relatively favorable position compared to Jackson County, which will have 53 vacancies to fill by this fall.
Among the new faces in Macon County will include a new principal at Cartoogachaye, a guidance counselor at Union Academy, spanish teacher at Highlands and a school psychologist for the district.