Teachers feel sting of defeat as Senate overrides veto

In the end it's quiet resignation, while GOP says the worry is unwarranted.

Staff writerJune 16, 2011 

Disappointed teachers looked on Wednesday afternoon as the Senate negated Gov. Bev Perdue's veto and gave final approval to a $19.7 billion budget.

The Senate's 31-19 party-line vote capped a historic series of actions that saw the first budget veto by a North Carolina governor and the first override of that vetoed budget. House members started their day Wednesday with an override vote taken shortly after midnight.

The budget debate centered on education spending and whether the state should extend a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase.

Perdue, a Democrat, wanted to extend part of the sales tax increase, but the Republican-controlled legislature won the argument and enacted a budget without it.

The state plans to spend about 56 percent of the budget on K-12 public schools, community colleges and universities. The N.C. Association of Educators, and most Democrats, fought the budget hard, saying it would harm public education and cost teachers and teacher assistants their jobs.

Republicans have called the complaints overblown and emphasize how close their budget is to Perdue's. Excluding costs for the pre-school program for at-risk children that the legislature moved from education to Health and Human Services, the GOP budget spends about $37 million less on K-12 education than Perdue suggested.

Senators said they were proud of what they accomplished in allowing temporary taxes to expire, adding money to hire 1,100 teachers, and of their intentions to pursue a pay-for-performance plan for teachers and other state employees.

Senate leader Phil Berger called the actions "policy changes that are long overdue."

The budget includes $121 million in 2012-13 for merit raises, and Berger met with former Gov. Jim Hunt on Wednesday morning to talk about ways to measure teacher effectiveness. Hunt has an education institute named after him that's working on the issue.

"They've indicated in the Senate their interest in doing that," Hunt said. "He asked if we'd help them."

Berger said measuring teacher effectiveness to determine which teachers qualify for merit increases will be critical to the pay plan.

Republican legislators say they have paid for all teachers and teacher assistant positions, and that the state budget is not to blame for the layoff notices they are getting.

"These pink slips are not our doing," Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican, said.

But local districts, who have to figure out how to make an additional $124 million in discretionary cuts, are cutting programs and jobs in response the state budget.

Jill Elberson, a middle school technology and math teacher in Randolph County, said she lost her job when the district cut its middle school technology program. A district spokesman said the cut is a consequence of the state budget.

Elberson, who has taught for six years, said her school is left with an elective business course that does not include instruction on commonly used software. And she is looking for work.

"I don't know how I'm going to make it if I don't get a job," she said.

Hunt sees 'steps back'

The override is a blow to Perdue, who campaigned against the budget for weeks.

Hunt, a Democrat, said he too was disappointed in the budget.

"I regret we have taken some steps back," he said.

The budget included a 20 percent cut to one of his signature achievements, the early childhood program Smart Start, and budget opponents say it will drop North Carolina to next-to-bottom in states' per-pupil spending on education. And the debate this year has brought teachers low, Hunt said.

Dejected teachers, some of whom watched both the House and Senate turn back Perdue's veto, walked quietly from the Senate gallery following the afternoon vote.

David Beaver, a veteran high school history teacher, had to take a few minutes to gather his thoughts before answering questions about the Senate override.

Beaver, who teaches in Davidson County, says he's sad about the prospects for young people who want to become teachers.

"There's no reason to believe a job will be available for them down the road with the cutbacks we have," he said. "This budget sends a horrible message that education is not our top priority."

lynn.bonner@newobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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