Wake County warns about state cuts to teacher assistants

Wake County school leaders warned Tuesday that they might have to lay off about 500 teacher assistants this year to deal with potential state budget cuts.

The state Senate budget unveiled this week would cut statewide funding for teacher assistants by $57.5 million for the upcoming school year and $166 million the following fiscal year.

Wake school board members said they might have to use part of the record $44.6 million increase in local funding approved by county commissioners to help avoid laying off 500 teacher assistants.

“For the state of North Carolina, we’re looking at a layoff of TAs of well into the thousands, which would be one of the largest layoffs in the history of North Carolina,” school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said.

Chief Business Officer David Neter told board members there’s even been some discussion about having teacher assistants do double duty as bus drivers to help keep them on the payroll.

Some school districts, such as Johnston County schools, do use teacher assistants as bus drivers. But the practice would typically not be possible in Wake because the transportation system requires buses to make multiple runs in the morning and afternoon.

Senate budget leaders have proposed the teacher assistant cuts at the same time they’ve called for increasing funding to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. Teacher assistants primarily work with students in those early grades, but Senate leaders say smaller class sizes would be a more effective way to improve education.

The Senate budget would give Wake about $8 million more for 145 additional teachers to reduce class sizes.

The state House budget doesn’t cut funding for teacher assistants and includes $88.8 million to keep funding at current levels. School board members said they need the House budget to pass.

After reviewing the Senate budget, the school board on Tuesday approved an interim budget that will allow the district to keep operating until the state budget is adopted.

In contrast to their worries about the state budget picture, school board members repeatedly thanked the Wake County Board of Commissioners for providing nearly all of the $48.3 million funding increase that the school board requested this year.

“I so appreciate their attentiveness and their willingness to provide what I consider an appropriate level of local financial support for our schools,” school board member Susan Evans said.

The school board had asked for a $48.3 million increase – a 14 percent increase – with the majority of the new money covering pay raises for all 18,000 school district employees.

County Manager Jim Hartmann had recommended a $34.6 million increase as part of a budget that included a 2.9-cent property tax rate increase. While $34.6 million would also have been a record single-year increase in Wake school funding, school supporters lobbied the commissioners to provide more.

Commissioners responded Monday by amending Hartmann’s budget proposal to hike the tax increase to 3.65 cents, a move that would provide an additional $10 million for the school system.

The 5-2 vote was largely made possible with the support of four new commissioners who were elected last year on a campaign pledge to increase school funding.

“I feel there’s real momentum in this community as reflected yesterday to support our schools, our students and our teachers,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said.

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Highcroft could change calendars

In other action Tuesday:

▪ Wake County school administrators recommended converting Highcroft Drive Elementary School in Cary from the year-round calendar to the traditional calendar in 2016.

But administrators also recommended leaving Salem Elementary and Salem Middle in Apex and Brier Creek Elementary in northwest Raleigh on the year-round calendar. Staff want to revisit the calendars at the Salem schools next year.

The school board could vote July 21 on the recommendations.

▪ The school board approved a contract with Chicago-based Acceleration Academies LLC to run new academies designed to entice high school dropouts to get their diplomas. The private company would recruit Wake dropouts, ages 16 to 21, to return class. There could be as many as three acceleration academies, each serving 250 students, open this fall.

Acceleration Academies would run on the state and federal funding provided for each student with the district keeping the local funding.