Wake schools can cope with state cuts

No teaching jobs will be lost, although some administrative positions may be cut.

Staff WriterAugust 4, 2010 

— At a time when other school districts have laid off large numbers of teachers, Wake County school leaders are feeling fortunate that they're not facing deeper budget cuts.

Wake school administrators said Tuesday that the district will only have to cut $2.6 million more from the budget to make up for unplanned losses in state funding. Some layoffs of senior administrators could be made to help pay for the restoration of positions cut from Project Enlightenment, a popular early childhood program.

On Tuesday, the school board plans to finalize the adjustments to its $1.2 billion operating budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

"It could have been worse," said Ron Margiotta, the school board chairman. "I thought the state was going to hurt us more."

Budget woes caused by the recession have taken a toll on school districts across the country.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, the second-largest district in the state behind Wake, laid off 580 teachers at the end of last school year. They're rehiring 141 of them, but most are still without a job.

In light of the budget uncertainties, the Wake school board approved in April $20 million in cuts that included 68 staff layoffs. None of the employees was a classroom teacher.

The school district drew up contingency plans to slash an additional $20 million depending on the state budget. The state budget adopted in late June wound up cutting education funding less than feared.

Administrators have identified how they want to offset the additional $2.6 million in state cuts, including laying off some school transportation employees next week. But no classroom teachers will lose jobs.

Because the state cuts were less severe, Wake won't have to implement measures such as cutting pay for athletic coaches by 30 percent and raising class sizes.

But Wake may choose to make some cuts to rehire some or all of the nine counselors who were laid off in April at Project Enlightenment. The counselors, whose combined cost to Wake is more than $700,000 a year in salaries and benefits, provided intensive counseling services to help parents of children from birth through kindergarten.

The program's supporters have been lobbying the school board and county commissioners to restore those positions.

Board members asked Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens to review the cuts made to Project Enlightenment and come back with a recommendation next week on whether to restore any of the jobs.

"If we bring back the positions, we've got to find the money somewhere else to pay for them," school board member Kevin Hill said.

The board identified more than a dozen senior administrative positions and asked Hargens to look at whether any could be eliminated.

One position that could be eliminated is an area superintendent's position that will open up later this year after Kathryn Chontos retires.

Other positions identified by the board for Hargens to review are:

Government Affairs liaison who acts as the board's lobbyist with the state.

Director of real estate services.

Program evaluators in the Evaluation and Research Department.

Area program support administrators in the special education department.

"The budget will get worse next year," Margiotta said. "We need to send a message that we realize it's serious."

The bad news could come as soon as January if the federal government doesn't provide the $519 million in Medicaid money that the legislature used to balance the budget. David Neter, Wake's chief business officer, said the district's share of that cut could be between $6.5 million and $7 million.

Next year, Wake will also have to contend with the potential loss of $80 million worth of federal stimulus money.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Neter said.

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

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