House budget creates dark days for schools

A dark cloud covered Catawba County school systems this week as the N.C. House passed is education budget with a cut 3.8 percent higher than anticipated.

"It's a little worse than what we heard," said Glenn Barger, Catawba County Schools superintendent. "I appreciate the fact that they did save teachers in this version."

Teacher positions seem to be about the only line item saved in the House's budget, according to Barger and Newton-Conover City Schools Superintendent Dr. Barry Redmond.

Teacher assistant positions are "stripped away" from the budget, as well as instructional supplies, support and staff development funds.

Barger and Redmond agree that even with the cuts, the state's expectations for school systems won't change.

"I'm sure the expectation is to the hold (teachers) accountable for continued growth," Barger said. "Somehow or another we are going to have to make sure we have adequate support for teachers. (The House) budget is going to make it difficult to provide (support)."

School systems were originally expecting a 5 percent cut in the state budget, but got a 8.8 percent reduction. So education officials now have to create a plan to outline the additional 3.8 percent cut in case the Senate's version of the budget is worse.

CCS is still reviewing the House budget, but Redmond said he thinks the school system will cut about 10 teacher assistant positions; two assistant principals; two instructional support positions, such as a librarian or guidance counselor; two clerical secretaries; and at least one custodian.

"The frightening part is we will still be expected to return about $690,000 in discretionary cuts," Redmond said. "Because we have cut the line items so much, there is nowhere to find that $690,000."

The discretionary cuts Redmond and Barger are concerned about are similar to "allowances" given to school systems. For the past several years, the school districts were given a budget and were later asked to send money back to the state. The 2011-12 school budget is no different, and those funds are still expected to be returned to the state while schools still experience an increase in cuts.

"It is very concerning even though we have been cutting back for the past five years, carefully," Redmond said. "We really are a bare bones operation."

Barger and Redmond said they do not want to touch supplies and teacher and teachers assistant positions in the classrooms because students are the most important part of their operations. However, Gov. Beverly Perdue said she did not want to approve a budget that cut teacher positions.

"For the governor to state that we can need to return discretionary money without touching teacher positions is absolutely impossible," said Redmond, adding NCCS has about six teachers who are retiring or resigning and those positions will not be filled. "We are going to follow the law. It's a political move for her to place the burden back on the school systems to find these reductions without teachers being effected. We've done everything possible to not touch the classroom the whole time. There remains no more places to really cut."

Barger is also concerned for children ages 3-5 who are involved in programs, such as More at Four and Smart Start. These programs, Barger said, have "no permanent funding."

"Both of these programs have shown a dramatic impact on students as they begin with us as kindergartners," Barger said.

As the school systems prepare next year's budget based on what the House passed, they will wait on the Senate's budget, which could be worse than the House's version.

"The Senate is more favorable to higher education, and the House is more favorable to K-12," Redmond said. "The Senate has two options: They can throw more burden on K-12 system or put the 1 cent tax back in. That's why I think that the Senate version will be more troubling for K-12 education."

Barger said it may be two weeks or longer before the Senate passes its budget. Currently, the schools are looking at a 13.28 percent budget cut, which includes the House's 8.8 percent reduction and the discretionary money that has to be returned to the state.

Barger said he plans to discuss the House's budget with the CCS Board of Education during its 5:30 p.m. Monday meeting.

"We will put a plan together that addresses (the House budget)," he said. "We will wait as long as we can before we actually start to implement the plan."

Redmond said the education budget is an eye-opener for North Carolina.

"The reductions point to the fact that a severe amount of money has to be found," he said. "It's really tough deciding where money is going to be found."

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