Triangle schools hope to spare teachers

State cuts mean fewer electives and more children per class. School officials say they expected that.

Staff WritersAugust 12, 2009 

Larger class sizes and fewer courses will be the reality for schools across the Triangle this fall, but school leaders hope they can avoid laying off any additional teachers or other employees.

Triangle school leaders have been crunching the numbers to see how they'll be affected by the new state budget that cuts $225 million out of K-12 education funding to help balance the state's record revenue shortfall. What the numbers are showing is that schools will be opening with fewer classes and fewer teachers than they had a year ago.

"We're OK for now, but we had hoped for a better scenario," said Hank Hurd, chief operating officer for the Durham school system.

Last week, the legislature agreed on a budget that calls for leaving class sizes alone in kindergarten through third grade. Legislators left it up to local school districts to decide where to make the $225 million in cuts for the higher grades.

The budget, which was originally supposed to be completed by July 1, comes in just as school districts are preparing for most students to start the school year Aug. 25.

The state funds a majority of the budgets for local school districts, so some Triangle administrators began early on to anticipate the state cuts by preparing austere budgets.

In Wake County, the state's largest school district, school leaders braced for a potential 5 percent state cut. Earlier this year, principals were told to fill only 95 percent of positions for the coming school year.

But that 5 percent cut also meant that 1,496 Wake employees, many of them teachers, weren't rehired when their contracts expired June 30.

The final state budget provided the equivalent of a 4.8 percent cut.

"It looks like the plans we've had in place have left us very well situated to start school," said Stephen Gainey, the Wake school system's assistant superintendent for human resources.

Gainey, like officials in other Triangle school districts, said he doesn't anticipate any new layoffs. Gainey will provide a budget update on the effect on teaching positions at a school board committee meeting today.

But getting by with fewer teachers has consequences.

Fewer teachers means fewer electives and advanced placement courses. It's also uncertain how many of the 1,496 employees who weren't rehired will be offered new jobs.

At the school level, it means that students will have a hard time finding the electives they want. Students should also expect to see larger classes, especially in middle school and high school, for the classes they're required to take.

A.J. Muttillo, principal of West Millbrook Middle School in North Raleigh, said the budget cut worked out to an equivalent of a 20 percent cut by department.

"We're making do with fewer offerings this year," Muttillo said.

Similar scenarios are playing out across the Triangle.

Almost all of the nearly 100 teachers and 40 teaching assistants in job limbo will return to work in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, the district's superintendent Neil Pedersen said.

But the number of class sections cut in music and art are not likely to come back, he added. The same goes for those with low enrollment, such as upper-level German.

School officials will discuss more detailed cuts at a board meeting Thursday.

Some of the 28 teachers and 21 teacher assistants who were put on notice about their jobs won't be rehired, according to Greg Hicks, Orange County's assistant superintendent for human resources and finance. He said they've also had to cut Spanish teachers at the elementary level and other electives.

Hicks said there is now concern about resources. Because personnel cuts were minimal, he said textbooks and other supplies have to go.

"For our struggling students, that's going to be a bigger challenge for us," Hicks said.

Orange school board members are likely to discuss cuts at their meeting Monday.

Classroom sizes in Durham are almost certain to increase at the middle and high school level, Hurd said. He said the new state budget makes it unlikely they'll be able to bring back the 226 teachers they had cut.

While confident that no layoffs will be needed, Johnston County school leaders are looking at the possibility of larger classes.

Despite the gloomy news, most area school leaders felt the situation could have been worse.

"I feel pretty good," Hicks said. "Based upon the bad news we were hearing from Raleigh, we tried to act accordingly."

But Jennifer Lanane, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators is questioning why school districts don't use federal stimulus money to help teachers keep their jobs. Gov. Beverly Perdue is urging school districts to use the stimulus money, which runs out after two years.

"Why would you not want to save jobs of employees?" asked Lanane, whose group represents 5,000 Wake school employees.

Staff writer Sarah Nagem contributed to this report.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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