North Carolina's 1.5 million public school children depend on the state to pay the majority of their educational costs, but that long-held tradition may be changing.
What started as the state's promise during the Great Depression eroded during the Great Recession. Lawmakers, facing gaping budget shortfalls in the past two years, began to force cuts onto local school districts. That so-called discretionary reduction was $225 million two years ago and $305 million last year - both actions taken by a Democratic-led legislature.
Now the reduction has grown to $429 million for public schools and charter schools, with the Republican-led legislature cutting another $124 million. The cuts were contained in the budget that passed last week after a lengthy political fight over education spending with Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. The GOP-controlled legislature overrode the governor's veto, and the $19.7 billion budget plan became law.
Turning to the counties to make cuts began as a stopgap measure to deal with the economic crisis. But it has become a new way of doing business, and it's looking more like a fundamental shift in the way North Carolina pays for public schools. The reduction is projected to grow to about $500 million in 2012-13, at the same time the federal Education Jobs Fund runs out of money.
The 2011-12 cutting is under way. Across North Carolina, school districts are issuing pink slips, appealing to county governments for more money and raiding rainy day accounts to save jobs.
Jill Elberson, a middle school math and technology teacher in Randleman, packed up six years' worth of classroom gear and stowed it in her house last week.
The Randolph County school system had informed her she won't have a job in the fall, along with two other teachers and an assistant principal at her school. So she traveled to Raleigh to speak at a rally outside the legislature on the day of the override vote.
"At school, I had 800 kids that depend on me that I can't be there for anymore," she said.
Since the Great Depression, the state has taken the lead in funding public education, accounting for 60 percent of total school spending in 2009-10, down from 64 percent in 2008-09. Local money is about a quarter of the pie, and federal dollars make up the rest.
Now counties are having to take on a larger role in school finance. Senate leader Phil Berger said the change reflects the practical reality of the economic situation, rather than a philosophical shift about who should pay for schools.
The Eden Republican said it's safe to expect that the state will continue to provide the bulk of funding for K-12 education, but added: "We may of necessity have to rethink how we do this and adjust some of the maybe broader determinations in terms of what's the appropriate level of state funding, what's the appropriate level of local funding.
"The trimming back decisions are best left to those folks who are closest to what the practical impacts will be in the classroom."
But a transfer of responsibility could exacerbate the issue of educational disparity in wealthy counties versus poor counties - the subject of a long-running lawsuit against the state.
This week, a Wake County judge will hold a hearing in that case, known as Leandro, to consider whether the budget violates the state's constitutional mandate to provide all students access to a quality education, no matter where they live. If Judge Howard Manning Jr. determines that the budget is unconstitutional, he could give the legislature and the governor time to remedy the situation.
New cuts in budget
The newly adopted budget spends $7.4 billion on public schools, a 5.8 percent cut. The decrease is closer to 10 percent when taking into account the local reduction. The Republicans did add money for 1,100 new teachers in early grades to reduce class size.
All told, the state Department of Public Instruction estimates that nearly 9,300 school positions will disappear statewide.
In Wake County, Superintendent Tony Tata said Friday he would not lay off teachers or teacher assistants. But the district will lose custodians and central office employees, after already eliminating some 200 clerical and administrative positions.
Tata wants to seek a waiver to the legislative requirement to add five instructional days to the school calendar. Transportation money has already been reduced, he said, and operating school buses for an extra week would cost $500,000 Wake County doesn't have.
In Durham, the district will use the last of the federal money, dip into reserves and scrape together savings generated from spending freezes. But that still won't be enough, said Natalie Beyer, a school board member.
The board hopes county commissioners will come through with an extra $4.7 million for the schools to lessen the impact on the classroom, she said.
"We'd rather if the state is going to make cuts, that they make them rather than making locals be the bad guys," she said. "I'm sure they have a different opinion on that, but at least it's more transparent."
Durham schools are blessed because the community can raise revenue for the schools, she said, and has been supportive of education.
"But you know this is a very rural state and you have to be very concerned for folks. ... Some counties have no local supplement," Beyer said. "Even just passing the cost of one school bus onto some of those counties - how will they even support that? Most counties can't rely on property taxes in the way the Triangle can."
A 2010 study by the Public School Forum of North Carolina showed a widening gap in spending. The state's 10 richest counties had seven times more taxable property value per child than the 10 poorest counties in 2008-09.
Orange County spent 91/2 times more per student than Swain County, for example. The top 10 counties spent an average of $2,654 per student, compared to $598 per student in the bottom 10 counties.
The state does have special funds designated for low-wealth and small counties to help even out the disparity, and Berger said those funds will remain intact.
"We think that we've approached the budget with a recognition of that," he said.
Poor county's dilemma
Even with the funds, Dale Ellis, school superintendent in Montgomery County, expects rural counties to feel more of a sting.
His district faced the loss of 36 positions because of the $1.2 million state-mandated reduction. He hopes to manage it partly through attrition and retirements. The district will raid its savings and use up the federal money to keep people employed in the coming year, he said, but as many as 75 jobs could go.
The county can't help much. In fact, the county has trimmed the school budget by $300,000, Ellis said. There aren't many options for revenue in Montgomery, a county of 28,000 residents.
"Just looking at the tax base here, to cover the county cut, I mean, we'd have to raise the tax rate 10 cents, and that wouldn't even put a dent in the state cut," he said. "When you're looking at a rural county like mine, there's no way there's enough tax base here to cover for such a massive loss of state funds."
That dilemma goes to the heart of the Leandro lawsuit. The case, which led to two Supreme Court decisions, established that it is the state's obligation to ensure that all children have the opportunity for a sound basic education.
"It is a big deal that the state may be trending toward trying to push that financial responsibility back down to the local level, particularly in those counties where there just is not capacity to raise those funds," said Melanie Dubis, attorney for the Leandro plaintiffs. "It's the whole reason why this lawsuit was filed 16 years ago."
Ellis isn't thinking about the complexities of the Leandro lawsuit. He's thinking about his students, 75 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
"It takes an awful lot to reach those children," he said. "We don't have lower class sizes like we used to, we don't offer summer school anymore, we're not able to do afterschool tutoring."
Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.
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