NC’s low-performing schools will get less help under state budget cut

North Carolina’s low-performing schools will get less help this year as a result of budget cuts approved Tuesday by the State Board of Education.

State lawmakers required a $3.2 million cut this year from the Department of Public Instruction, the state agency that works with North Carolina’s public schools. The State Board of Education on Tuesday approved $2.5 million in cuts, including layoffs and the elimination of vacant positions in the divisions that help low-performing schools and provide training to teachers.

Board members said they didn’t want to eliminate the jobs and blamed state legislators for mandating budget cuts.

“These reductions will adversely impact our students, especially those in districts and schools which rely most heavily on the Department of Public Instruction,” said Eric Davis, a board member.

Bill Cobey, chairman of the state board, warned that layoffs could have implications on the long-running Leandro court case in which the N.C. Supreme Court declared that the state constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” Both sides announced Monday that they have requested an independent consultant to suggest additional steps to the state to improve education for all children in North Carolina.

The board’s decision and others’ reactions highlight tensions between the state board and the Department of Public Instruction. The Republican-led state legislature wants to transfer more power from the board to GOP state Superintendent Mark Johnson. A three-judge panel recently upheld the law that makes the change, but the board is appealing.

Johnson called the funding cuts “challenging” but said in a statement that the board “seems to prefer to complain and instead focuses only on more of the same.”

“The General Assembly is clearly frustrated with the lack of accountability of the State Board of Education, and I am too,” Johnson said in the statement. “The culture of non-accountability created by the State Board is one of the reasons I sought funding for a top-to-bottom, third-party review of DPI.

“By studying the results from this upcoming operational review and working together with the professional staff at DPI, I believe the department will come out stronger, more efficient, and more effective at supporting public schools in NC.”

Republican state lawmakers defended the budget cuts as an example of trimming bureaucracy. The legislature has cut the Department of Public Instruction’s budget by $22.9 million since 2009.

“Studies show teachers – not bureaucrats – have the greatest influence on student achievement, so we focused our public education spending on providing major incentives to keep teachers in the classroom and substantially increasing principal and assistant principal pay,” Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for state Senate Republicans, said in a statement. “We believe a better use of tax dollars is to move them from an unaccountable bureaucracy and into the classroom where those dollars will actually benefit students.”

The state board approved $1.6 million in personnel cuts that will lead to the layoffs of seven employees, the elimination of eight vacant positions and reductions in salaries for 19 instructional coaches who work with teachers. Cobey said most of the personnel cuts are from the division of district and school transformation, which works with low-performing schools, and the division of educator effectiveness, which provides training for teachers.

With the reduced staff, Cobey said the divisions will be merged to form a new division of district support.

The names of workers being laid off and positions being eliminated were not immediately provided Tuesday. Cobey said the layoffs will be implemented “with as much compassion and concern as possible.”

The board also approved $865,168 in cuts to DPI’s operating budget. Those cuts include three temporary workers and other areas such as professional development and travel.

The board still has to cut $737,285. Cobey said those changes could be adopted next week but might be much tougher to make. He said it could lead to more personnel cuts.

Cobey, former chairman of the state Republican Party, said board members’ hands were tied in where to make cuts because of all the areas state lawmakers said they couldn’t touch, including new positions created for Johnson. Cobey said he’s hoping school districts will be able to pick up the slack caused by the cuts.

“We’re further reducing the service to the districts,” Cobey said in an interview. “Hopefully you won’t see any huge impact any place.

“But there’s going to be marginal impact in certain places across the state, and we’re going to try our best to mitigate that. But, you know, you can’t cut something without having an impact.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui