Hundreds of North Carolina elementary school teachers face an uncertain future now that the state budget blocks schools from paying teachers with money set aside for teacher assistants.
The $21.74 billion state budget adopted by the General Assembly maintains full funding for teacher assistants but takes away the flexibility school districts had to use that money for other purposes. Now school districts around the state are looking for ways to compensate the hundreds of teachers they had been paying with teacher assistant dollars.
Last year, the Johnston County school system diverted $990,000, or 12 percent, of the $8.2 million it received from the state for teacher assistants. In Wake County, that number was $4.2 million. Statewide, districts diverted $42 million to pay for teachers out of $376 million in teacher-assistant funding.
In Johnston, the diverted money flowed into the system’s supplemental fund for low-wealth schools, said spokeswoman Tracey Peedin Jones. From there, most of the money went to fund programs that serve children with special needs. Specifically, the money paid for salaries, benefits and some supplies, she said.
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It’s hard to say exactly how many positions currently depend on diverted TA funds, Peedin-Jones said, But the funds used for teachers who work with exceptional children covered the equivalent of 10 salaries, she said.
Johnston schools should not have to lay anyone off this year, she said, because the schools made this year’s budget with the possibility of losing state funds in mind.
It remains unclear whether the new funding restriction means Johnston County will hire more teacher assistants. The budget included a new formula for calculating how many TAs the state will fund in each district, Peedin-Jones said, and Johnston will have to wait for guidance from the Department of Public Instruction. The starting salary for a Johnston County teacher assistant is just under $18,000.
Teachers assistants play an important role in education, Superintendent Ed Croom said. They provide remediation and one-on-one instruction time to students, he said, and that’s why Johnston schools have traditionally budgeted the vast majority of its teacher-assistant dollars to fund regular TA positions.
“Lessons today are tailored to fit the needs of each child in the classroom,” he said. “Teacher assistants are instrumental in making this happen.”
However, it is also vital for public school systems to have flexibility in their budgets, Croom said. Before the state added its new restrictions, Johnston schools were able to hire educators – such as specialized tutors – who fulfill similar roles as teacher assistants but do not meet the state’s definition for funding.
“The more flexibility you have, the more you can do in your schools,” Croom said. “If school districts do not have flexibility with these funds, something will have to be eliminated or other fund sources will have to be utilized.”
A budgetary compromise
Funding for teacher assistants was one of the contentious issues that delayed adoption of the state budget past the June 30 deadline. The original Senate budget would have cut 5,000 teacher assistants to instead hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, but the House wanted to fund assistants at last year’s level.
As part of a budget compromise reached Sept. 11, House leaders agreed to the Senate’s demands on limits on how schools could spend teacher-assistant dollars.
School districts had lobbied lawmakers against the new restrictions. Leanne Winner, chief lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, noted that the budget restriction would be applied to teachers who are already working.
“We’ve already begun the school year for districts who’ve used the money to hire teachers in the younger grades,” Winner said. “It would be a very upsetting and difficult transfer to all of a sudden lose that teacher.”
Sen. Harry Brown, the chamber’s chief budget writer, said he sees little basis for the argument that the funding restriction will result in some teachers losing their jobs. He said school systems have so much flexibility with the rest of their budget to keep those teachers on.
“All those LEAs (local education authorities) in that case have a lot of fund balance they can adjust with,” Brown said. “So that’s an argument, but I don’t think there’s much basis for that argument.”
David Neter, chief business officer of Wake schools, said most of the reserves Brown is talking about are already committed to items that districts need to purchase.
“Even though there’s a number from an accounting perspective on a book that says there’s $80 million, that doesn’t mean there’s $80 million of funding available to spend,” Neter said. “It sounds good, but when you look at the mechanics just under the covers, you realize it’s a bit of a fallacy to say that we’ve got $80 million that we’re sitting on that we can spend.”
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed to this report.