N.C. budget bears brutal cuts for schools
Local education officials are budgeting more cautiously now that Gov. Pat McCrory has signed the state budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which has cut core services for public education.
Republicans say that the budget is being funded at a higher level this year, but with this year's elimination of teacher assistant funding, discretionary cuts, cuts to instructional personnel and redirecting funds to private schools, coupled with five years of belt-tightening after the 2008 recession, public education is feeling the sting.
The state budget of $7.87 billion was approved two weeks ago to cover K-12 education costs in the state.
Currently, the total amount allotted to Haywood County Schools from the state is $38 million, which is $787,674 less than the school system received last year. Haywood officials received a copy of the budget on Aug. 1.
Fortunately, no teaching positions have been eliminated this year, but the cuts still have many school officials feeling anxious about the future.
“For the life of me, I don’t understand why they made such deep cuts,” said Chuck Francis, chairman of the Haywood County Board of Education. “It’s not a good day to be a teacher.”
This year, Haywood County Schools received its largest budget cuts in school material funding and funding for children with special needs. Special education funding was cut by $114,119 and funding for materials was cut by $106,290.
Joan Ferrara, exceptional child director for Haywood County Schools, said she had been bracing herself for severe budget cuts this year. While she expected to see a 5.2 percent cut, the state ended up cutting about 8 percent from special education.
Ferrara said she had applied for dozens of grants last year as a precaution.
“We’ve spent every penny as wisely as we can, and the bottom line is we’ve gone after every single grant we could,” she said. “We got eight grants last year. This year we’ll survive. I don’t know about next year.”
Ferrara said she had to cut down on special education teacher training and materials to offset the cut.
“In the past, we would send two or three people for training, and now either we’ll have to send one person and have them come back and train or this year we’ll just have to stay after school until 5 o’clock," she said. "That way we’ll get the training in, but it won’t cost us anything.”
There currently are 1,204 students with disabilities in Haywood County, Ferrara said.
As hard as the cuts were to swallow, most cuts were ones the school leaders were told about in advance.
“The only curveball we did not expect was the cut to funding that supplies us with the materials we’ve got,” said Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent of Haywood County Schools. “We tried to plan what (the state) told us would be in our budget, but that’s one thing where you don’t know where to find that (money).”
In the past five years, the Haywood County School System has been faced with more than $5 million in budget cuts, which has prompted the school board to make significant cuts in personnel.
Nolte said the school had lost more than 120 positions since the 2008-09 school year.
“We met face to face with people and laid off teachers, TAs and didn’t renew contracts,” Nolte said. “We just made cuts across the board. The biggest expense in the budget is personnel. There’s no way to survive the cuts coming from the state without cutting personnel.”
Budget cuts have been affecting the school board since the 2008-09 school year, and have continued to do so. In 2008-09, the board received a $812,157 reduction from state funding. The following year, the board lost a total of $1.6 million in state funds. In 2010-11, another $1,6 million was cut in state funding, and during the last school year, $2 million was cut from the state budget.
Some state state funding cuts were offset by larger federal appropriations during the recession's early years, and then with the Race to the Top federal grant secured by the state.
With the federal funds drying up and state funds being pared back, the face of public education is changing.
A report released earlier this year by the State Board of Education said teacher pay in North Carolina currently was among the lowest in the country, ranking the it 46th out of all 50 states.
“We’ve become the state that used to be the forefront of education, and now we’re looked upon as, ‘Wow, how did this happen?’” Francis said.
While most teachers won’t receive a raise any time soon, some assistant teachers could be out of a job.
In the state budget, teaching assistant funding was reduced by 21 percent, which could affect about 3,000 assistant teachers. The budget now eliminates teaching assistant funds for second- and third-grade classes, though school boards can use local funds to retain them.
McCrory’s budget has set aside funding to hire more full-time teachers and also removes a cap size for classes. This means that as the classroom gets more crowded, fewer teachers may be needed. Without state-imposed limits on class size, a second or third-grade teacher could now be responsible for as many as 30 students or more in one class without an assistant. The cap for class size previously was set at 23 students.
Linda Crisp, a former teacher and grandparent, said she thought increasing classroom numbers was a bad choice.
“Then the students can’t get the time they need or the help they need,” she said.
Fortunately, Haywood County is able to keep its teaching assistants at least for another year because many have already been assigned to do other duties in computer labs or elsewhere in the school.
Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools, said the school system had been cutting corners to maintain nine assistant teacher positions for at least another year.
“I know how much students depend on them, especially the younger children,” Garrett said. “We need two teachers in there working with them. We’ve managed to hang on so far because we’ve been very conservative in the past.”
Crisp she was very concerned about the elimination of assistant teacher funding.
“I hope they don’t have to cut the assistant teachers,” Crisp said. “I know how important teaching assistants are for kids that age. As a retired teacher, I feel very strongly about it.”
Another issue that will affect teachers is the elimination of tenure. Instead of having a career status, or tenure, the teachers will now have contracts that can be renewed based on performance measures.
The state also eliminated some budgeting flexibility that school districts had in past years.
“This year they made line items of where the cuts were going to come from, so it took away a lot of the flexibility from us,” Francis said. “It hurt us very much.”
In addition, changes in the new budget are reducing the fund balance the school board had been building up, Francis said.
“The board has worked really hard to build some sort of cushion in our fund balance, but it's being quickly eroded,” Francis said. “We’re trying to work quickly to look at ways to cut money, and keep us going on the right direction. We’ve got a good school system, but it’s getting more difficult.”
No sense of security
With the new budget, the state’s already-low teacher salaries are going to be coupled with a lack of job security, no additional pay for graduate degrees, severe cuts to teacher assistants, larger class sizes and no significant salary increases in the next two years.
This likely will create an environment that may discourage new teaching talent and is encouraging current teachers to leave the profession or the state, Francis said, noting the cuts also seem to be stressing out some teachers.
“The biggest thing that everybody can see is the change in the morale of teachers and people in education,” he said. “It’s not something you can wrap your fingers around, but you can definitely detect it.”
In addition, officials like former superintendent of Public Instruction and Congressman, Bob Etheridge, are worried about the future of public education.
“Governor McCrory’s negotiated budget hurt our teachers, children, and our state,” Etheridge noted in an email. “Instead of taking our great state forward, their proposals will take us backwards. … Now, we are on the front pages of national newspapers in a negative way.”
The state budget also has North Carolina State Superintendent worried about students for first time in 30 years.
“With this budget, North Carolina has moved away from its commitment to quality public schools,” noted Dr. June Atkinson in a released statement. “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.”