40 NC education employees laid off, including some who help low-performing schools

Layoff notices were given Friday to 40 employees at the state Department of Public Instruction — including several who work with North Carolina's low-performing schools — to help meet a $5.1 million budget cut ordered by state lawmakers.

Most of the cuts were in Educator Support Services, a division that helps low-performing schools and districts, and in the Information Technology Division. In addition to the 40 layoffs, 21 vacant positions were eliminated, according to State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson.

“Today, we implemented the budget reductions required by law for the 2018-19 fiscal year," Johnson said in a written statement. "The plan we developed, drafted by members of the DPI leadership team with the understanding and support of the State Board of Education, was informed by the recommendations contained in the third-party operational review of the agency completed earlier this year by Ernst & Young (EY)."

This is the second year in a row that cuts have been made to divisions that work with low-performing schools. Several employees in that division were fired last year as part of a $3.2 million cut ordered by state lawmakers.

Educator Support Services is bearing the brunt of this year's job cuts, accounting for 29 of the 40 layoffs and 12 of the 21 vacant positions being eliminated.

These cuts will hurt the schools that need the help the most, according to Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. He said that DPI has done a good job of helping to transform challenging schools.

"The cuts announced today fall disproportionately on the professionals who are supporting our low-performing and most challenging schools," Poston said. "It’s exactly the opposite of what we should be doing."

In addition to the $3.2 million cut that was part of last year's state budget, legislators also built in a $5.1 million cut for this year.

Johnson and the state board had unsuccessfully asked lawmakers to delay this year's budget cuts. They said that the cuts would impact their ability to implement the changes to DPI recommended in the Ernst & Young audit.

Instead of rescinding the cuts, legislators provided $3 million in this year's state budget to help pay for severance payments.

Legislators restricted where the cuts could be made, exempting programs they support such as the Office of Charter Schools and the Innovative School District, a new program where the state has taken over a low-performing school in Robeson County.

"The General Assembly carved out their school choice sacred cows and let the ax fall on support for low-performing schools.," Poston said.

Johnson said they'd deal with the cuts to Educator Support Services by implementing the audit recommendations to move to a regional support structure. He said DPI will change the way it provides support to low-performing schools and districts.

Johnson said the other layoffs would help DPI follow the audit recommendations to centralize its IT responsibilities and to outsource the rest to vendors or to the N.C. Department of Information Technology.

"I support the decisions we made, but we did not make them lightly," Johnson said. "I thank all the affected employees for their hard work in support of our public schools. Each will have the option to receive transition assistance, and we are adamant about helping each affected employee who wants our help to find new employment.”

The budget cuts come amid a battle over who should oversee the day-to-day operations of the state's public school system.

In December 2016, the GOP-led Legislature passed a bill transferring some of the State Board of Education's powers to Johnson, the first Republican elected to state superintendent in more than a century. The state board sued to block the law.

In June, the state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law. But both Johnson and the state board claimed victory in the ruling.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer