State legislators give teachers raises but little else to public schools

lbonner@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2012 

  • Key provisions in the state budget • $5 million for a job retraining program aimed at community college students to help the long-term unemployed • $1 million for a new library at N.C. State’s Centennial Campus • $3.5 million for early learning literacy programs • Eliminates an assistant secretary position in the N.C. Commerce Department, saving $130,000 • $500,000 for Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte • $500,000 to RTI International, a RTP research firm • An additional $4.5 million to fund need-based scholarships for students attending private colleges • Increase of $18.6 million in need-based financial aid to the UNC system • The budget prohibits the state Department of Health and Human Services from spending money on statewide smoking-prevention media or marketing campaigns. • Closes the Edgecombe Youth Development Center, eliminating 57 full-time positions, for savings of $1.71 million • Adds 44 full-time positions to the Family Court Program at a cost of $2.86 million • Directs the Department of Transportation to start collecting new and increased tolls that had been ordered in the budget a year ago, but with some changes: The busy Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry across Hatteras Inlet and the Knotts Island ferry across Currituck Sound will remain toll-free (Senate leaders had proposed tolls on these routes.) Gives a one-year reprieve to riders of the Minnesott Beach ferry across the Neuse River, which serves Cherry Point commuters. Riders on the Pamlico River ferry in Beaufort County, which also serves commuters, will start paying tolls for the first time. • Cuts $63 million in funding for the planned Garden Parkway near Charlotte and Mid-Currituck Bridge on the northern Outer Banks, because DOT officials have said they will not be ready to spend the money in the coming year. • Drops a Senate proposal to charge a statewide fee of $45 for teens under age 18 who take driver education class. Local school systems are still authorized to collect a fee of up to $45, to make up for a cut in state funding last year. • Eliminates the state’s New Starts program that supplements federal money for urban rail transit projects. The remaining $25 million in the fund will be earmarked for Charlotte’s light-rail line, which has been the only New Starts beneficiary to date. Local officials in the Triangle and other communities with plans for light rail now will have to compete with highway projects for state money. • Cuts the gas tax, now 38.9 cents per gallon, to a maximum of 37.5 cents for the coming year. • Cuts $26 million from a state fund for paving dirt roads and improving other secondary roads.

Legislators are expected to vote Thursday on a $20.2 billion budget that gives state employees and teachers raises and shrinks the amount that school systems would have to cut from their budgets next year.

Legislative leaders praised their work, but school administrators, school board members and Gov. Bev Perdue reserved opinions until they could look at the numbers.

A possible veto by Perdue, a Democrat, looms over the discussions. The House schedule for finishing its work for the year takes into account a potential veto.

She vetoed last year’s budget but the legislature overrode her veto.

“This budget is a good faith effort to restore funding and to provide some certainty in a number of other areas, education and health and human services probably the most important,” said House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican.

Funding cuts ‘devastating’

But House Minority Leader Joe Hackney on Wednesday night called the cuts to education “devastating,” with the money lost equivalent to salaries for 3,400 teachers.

He questioned Republicans’ support for traditional public schools.

“I think any alternative to public schools, they are supportive of,” said Hackney, an Orange County Democrat. “They’re supportive of home schools, they’re supportive of religious schools, they’re supportive of online education charters, they’re supportive of traditional charters. They’re supportive of any program that does not involve funding adequately our traditional public schools for everyone.”

The budget cancels $143.3 million in budget cuts that local school districts would have to make. That’s less than the $330 million the House wanted districts to be able to keep next year, but more than the $74 million relief in the Senate proposal.

Local school districts must make $360 million in discretionary cuts next year and face the loss of $259 million in federal stimulus money, which runs out in a few months.

State employees and school employees will receive raises – 1.2 percent – for the first time in four years. Retirees will get a 1 percent cost-of-living increase.

The budget delivers what could be a fatal below to the state teacher recruitment program, the N.C. Teaching Fellows. The House revived the program in its budget, but Senate Republicans don’t want it.

Republicans want to kill the program because it started under Democrats, Hackney said. “It’s really not clear to me whose little vendetta that is, but it’s somebody’s little vendetta.”

$27 million education reform plan

The budget also includes a literacy plan requiring more children to read at grade level before they’re promoted to fourth grade, requires A to F grades for schools, and directs local districts to develop plans for teacher performance bonuses. The budget includes $27 million for this package of changes, pushed by Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican.

The budget did not include two controversial school proposals: one to end teacher tenure and another to allow businesses to receive dollar-for-dollar state tax credits for donations to private-school scholarships. Tillis said the scholarships could still be considered this year.

Natalie Beyer, a Board of Education member from Durham County, said the so-called short session was not the time to pass such weighty changes to education.

“I am most concerned that the proposal contains major untested education policy initiatives that have not had input from teachers and principals nor have they had ample public debate in the short session,” she said.

Teachers said they were pleased to get raises after four years of stagnant pay. The House had wanted one-time bonuses for teachers and state employees.

Bethany Meyers, a Johnston County middle school teacher, said teachers were feeling “disrespected and disliked by the Republican Senate,” but appreciated the respect the raises demonstrated.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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