The state's public schools have cut 8 percent of their staffs since 2008-09, losing at least 16,678 positions and laying off 6,097 people, according data released Wednesday from the state Department of Public Instruction.
Among the positions lost, 35 percent were teacher jobs and 33 percent were teacher assistant jobs.
The data were compiled by DPI and include totals for all counties except Duplin and Guilford, which have yet to report their cuts.
Cuts date back to the beginning of the recession, but the largest reductions occurred during this school year. In 2011-12, 6,308 positions were eliminated and 2,418 employees were laid off statewide.
Parents and students will notice changes this year, including larger class sizes in upper grades and less access to counselors, social workers, nurses and library staff, State Superintendent June Atkinson said. Bus rides may be longer, and school supplies will be less plentiful.
Schools may be dirtier, too. Franklin County just opened Franklinton High School but doesn't have the money to pay for custodial services for the building, Atkinson said.
In the Triangle's five school districts, nearly 1,000 positions were eliminated this year, but layoffs numbered 266. Of those, 31 were teachers and 115 were teacher assistants. The layoffs occurred in Johnston, Orange and Wake counties.
It's the first time since the Depression that North Carolina schools have cut teacher positions during a time of enrollment growth, education officials said Wednesday. About 30,000 new students have been added to state schools in the past four to five years.
Recent data showed the state's graduation rates had climbed to 77.7 percent, a new high mark, but Atkinson predicted that school systems won't be able to continue to make such progress.
"Someday we're going to wake up and say, 'Well, what happened?'" she said. "One of the reasons is that you have this constant erosion of resources to be able to help all students achieve and graduate."
Funds running dry
The reductions are likely to accelerate in 2012, when $400 million in "EduJobs" federal funding for school jobs ends. Layoffs would have been worse this year without those federal dollars, which cover more than 4,000 jobs in North Carolina.
Bill Harrison, chairman of the State Board of Education, said the damage happens over time.
"There's a cumulative effect to this," he said. "This is the third year."
This year, the cuts were handled differently across school districts. Some used the federal money last year and had to cut more this year; some banked the federal dollars to avoid big reductions this year.
In Durham, the district cut 158 positions mainly through attrition, including 120 classroom teacher jobs; the district avoided layoffs altogether. The Wake County Schools eliminated 567 jobs, but no teacher positions; there were 95 layoffs in Wake, mostly central office staff and custodians.
Education cuts were at the center of a budget battle between Democrats and Republicans during the legislative session this year. Democrats argued for keeping part of an expiring sales tax to mitigate school cuts; Republicans said the reductions were necessary and refused to consider keeping the tax. But Republicans also advocated for new spending to reduce class size in early grades.
In the end, the legislature's new Republican majority prevailed. They overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue and their budget plan survived.
GOP defends cuts
It's clear from the numbers released Wednesday that schools sustained reductions under both Democratic-led and Republican-dominated legislatures.
GOP Sen. Jerry Tillman, a co-chairman of the education committee, said Democrats are falsely "yelling and screaming" that Republicans have hurt education.
He pointed out that the budget added 1,100 teacher positions to begin lowering class sizes in early grades.
"We did all we could, better than most people expected," Tillman said. "In teacher positions, you're going to see adding positions, not losing positions."
The reality is that it was a tough year when lawmakers were trying to close a massive budget shortfall, he said.
"We want to have education as something the Republicans are standing for," he said. "We'll move us ahead. It's just going to take some time."
In a recent meeting with reporters, House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, said districts should be prepared with a good explanation if they cut teachers and teacher assistants rather than non-teaching staff and other expenses.
Atkinson said schools are running out of places to cut that do not involve instruction.
"While there may be this prevailing thought that we have a very large percentage of our dollars in education going to administration at the central office and at the school level, it's not true," she said.
About 6 percent of state dollars in education pays for administration, she said.
What counts most, she said, is the impact of the cuts on student achievement.
"I just think we're dangerously thin to be able to continue the progress that we've made in the past."
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