Haywood schools still squeezed
Whether the state budget passed by the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly is good for education depends largely on who’s explaining it.
A news release sent out jointly by Sen. Phil Berger, the Senate’s president pro tem, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, both Republicans, lauds the budget they say restores $251 million in recurring state dollars to K-12 public education, continues to fully fund at the state level all classroom teachers and teaching assistants, and, in fact, increases state level funding for teachers. The budget additionally 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, the release states.
Democrats call the budget a giant step backward in education and offer far different statistics.
“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,” Rep. Phil Haire, (D-Sylva) said in his constituent email. “This year’s cut alone is the equivalent of 3,400 teaching jobs.”
Rep. Ray Rapp calculated the budget setback for education to be $1.33 million in Haywood alone.
“A year after losing 6,000 public school educators – including 3,000 teachers and teacher assistants – the new budget provides public schools with $190 million less than they have in the current year,” Rapp wrote. “The total reduction to funding for K-12 education over two years will be $650 million.”
Bill Nolte, the associate superintendent for Haywood County Schools, said school officials have followed the budget discussions as closely as possible, but noted details aren’t likely to be available until early July. It appears that there have been shifts in how funds are to be used, he said, but he fears the end result will be less overall funding.
For instance, Nolte said, school personnel, along with other state employees, will receive a 1.2 percent pay increase, which is the first pay raise offered since 2008. However, he hasn’t seen a line item indicating there are extra state funds to cover the hike.
“What we think we will have to do is make additional cuts to cover that,” Nolte said. “The big question is where to cut. It could mean we will have to cut other staff.”
Another instance where Nolte fears funds touted as helping education may simply be existing funds that are reshuffled include the capital improvement portion of lottery funds.
In past years, the state would give local school districts a certain amount of funds, but later tell them they needed to give a portion of the funds back. The term has changed through the years — discretionary reductions, discretionary reversions or this year it is being called “flexible allocations.”
Nolte said it appears districts will be required to send less funds back under the budget recently approved, but will also receive reduced lottery funding that has traditionally been set aside for capital improvements.
“If we’re reading it correctly,” Nolte said, “they are now saying they will take $143 million out of lottery capital outlay and reduce the money they tell everyone they are giving us that we have to send back.”
Other improvement programs Republican legislators discuss — merit pay to reward teachers and boosts to literacy and graduation efforts — may likewise have to come out of the existing budgets either sent to districts by the state or from local revenues.
“We hope we're wrong,” Nolte said, “but we don’t see any line items in the budget to pay for these. I fear if there is a line item for something in the budget, there will be a lower line item somewhere else.”
If there is any good news about the recent budget passed by the General Assembly, which N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue still must approve or veto, it’s that education isn’t being hit as hard as was first anticipated, Nolte said.
Many school districts, including Haywood, held back local funds for the fiscal year starting July 2012 when federal stimulus funds and a federal grant to North Carolina would both run out. That means Haywood has about $1 million or so to help keep the system from experiencing drastic cutbacks. Not having state cuts as deep as first anticipated might allow the local funds to stretch a bit farther.
“We saved for the funding cliff that begins on July 1, 2012,” Nolte said. “We’re not sure it will last us more than a year or so. After that, there are no more pots of money.”