Under the Dome

NC House undecided on teacher assistant, driver’s ed deal

The House’s top budget negotiator said Tuesday that his chamber hasn’t yet decided on a Senate compromise offer to fund teacher assistants and driver’s education programs.

The Senate has made a written offer to keep teacher assistant funding at last year’s levels. But school districts would no longer be allowed to divert teacher assistant dollars to other uses, such as adding extra classroom teachers. The House would also need to give up some new programs it wants to fund.

The Senate’s original budget plan would cut about 5,000 elementary school teacher assistants and eliminate funding for driver’s ed classes in high schools. But the House wants to fund both at current levels.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican and the senior appropriations chairman, says the two sides are still talking about the proposal.

“That is continuing to be a work in process,” he told reporters after Tuesday’s House session. “I think there are several questions that some folks have, so they’re going to be working on seeing what answers they’re going to receive to those this afternoon.”

Dollar reiterated his chamber’s goal of avoiding cuts to teacher assistants and driver’s ed. “We want to make sure that we can address all of our needs in education,” he said. “We certainly welcome the opportunity to be able to fund our teacher assistants, which are critical to our students, as well as address the driver’s ed issue.”

But Dollar voiced a reluctance to ban school districts from using teacher assistant dollars for other purposes, such as classroom teachers.

During the 2014-2015 school year, districts transferred $48 million of $376 million in teacher assistant funds, much of it to hire more classroom teachers. TA money has also gone toward other uses in recent years, including $500,000 for transportation in Johnston County and $162,000 in Wake County for materials and supplies.

“I think there’s some clarification that needs to be there if we’re going to move away from having flexibility with the local school systems,” Dollar said.

Dollar and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Harry Brown of Jacksonville, have said they’re optimistic about progress toward a budget agreement this week. Dollar said an agreement on a transportation spending plan is nearly complete, and that budget negotiators handling health and human services spending were scheduled to meet Tuesday.

One of the sticking points in the transportation budget is Division of Motor Vehicles fee hikes. The House wanted a 30 percent increase in most fees, while the Senate plan called for 20 percent. Senate transportation appropriations committee co-chairman Bill Rabon declined to offer details of the agreement.

“We have not discussed that with the (senior) appropriations chairs yet, and so it would be premature to talk about it,” he said.

Brown says the health component could be the last element of the budget to fall into place, because the two chambers must also reach agreement on a Medicaid overhaul in order to determine health spending needs.

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