In schools budget, a number isn’t just a number

lbonner@newsobserver.comAugust 1, 2013 

The state is spending more on K-12 public schools than it did last year, yet school districts are adjusting their budgets to account for state cuts.

Republican leaders boast of expanded education spending, while Democrats lament public schools on starvation diets.

A new front in the fight over state education spending has developed in the last few years. It all has to do with where opponents set the starting line.

Arguments over how much schools won or lost with a $7.9 billion budget has outlasted the legislative session and will likely flare up next year and bleed into political campaigns.

Traditionally, a new budget is measured against a projection made by the governor’s office and state agencies of how much it would cost to maintain the status quo for another year, without adding or deleting programs.

Information in legislative budget documents measures new budgets this way, adding and subtracting money in relation to what’s called the “continuation budget.” By that measure, the state’s $7.9 billion K-12 budget represents a 1.5 percent budget cut.

Republican leaders prefer to talk about year-over-year appropriations. By this measure, the education budget is up 4.8 percent, or $361 million.

Comparing the actual year-by-year bottom lines is more useful, said Terry Stoops, a director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“Last year’s budget is more of an apples-to-apples comparison than using the continuation budget,” he said, because the continuation budget is too much of a mystery.

“There are too many questions whether it is a reliable indicator of what we should be spending,” he said.

Tazra Mitchell, a policy analyst with the N.C. Justice Center, agrees that the continuation budget isn’t a reliable measure, but for a different reason: The baseline is eroded from years of cuts.

Education spending has not kept pace with the growing student population, she said, and the current K-12 budget is about $534 million less than pre-recession 2008 spending, when adjusted for inflation.

“It’s evident that we have a lot more kids to educate, but funding hasn’t kept up,” she said.

The governor’s office decides what to include in the continuation budget. This year, continued spending on textbooks and instruction supplies were not included in the calculation, which lowered the budget estimate.

Local school districts use information from the state Department of Public Instruction to help write their own budgets – information that’s used to develop the continuation budget. When the state budget falls short of expectations, districts have to adjust.

Philip Price, chief financial officer for the state Department of Public Instruction, expects state per pupil spending will drop this year.

School districts across the state are getting less than expected, and they’re trying to figure out how to fill the holes.

“They didn’t get enough to fund the growth or continue what they had last year,” he said.

Wake schools estimate a $5.5 million shortfall in state money.

The Durham school budget is facing a $4.2 million cut, which translates to 204 jobs lost, spokesman Chip Sudderth said. Many school boards act to limit the impact of state cuts. Durham school officials have not yet decided how they will respond.

The state schools budget includes some major cuts, with the $120 million cut to teacher assistants one of the biggest. But it also includes some new spending: $9 million for school resource officers and panic alarms, $5.1 million more for Teach for America, and about $18.6 million to pay for an elementary school literacy program pushed by Senate leader Phil Berger.

The budget also frees school districts from some restrictions on how they spend state money. Districts will be able to use the money they get for teachers and school administrators for other purposes, though they cannot use the money to hire more central office administrators.

Stoops of the Locke Foundation said schools can use this new freedom to direct money toward their priorities.

“I think the districts will be able to decide the best use of funding for personnel, class sizes and what their instructional needs are,” he said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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