General Assembly-ordered cuts likely to hamper services for poor, rural schools

By: - July 18, 2017 3:30 pm

Support for needy districts and key positions within North Carolina’s top public school agency may be in jeopardy this week as the State Board of Education mulls ways to pass down millions in legislative cuts.

Officials confirmed that the State Board of Education could vote as early as Wednesday on how to dish out $3.2 million in General Assembly-ordered funding reductions for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

State Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican, turned over multiple options for distributing the cuts to the state board, which has provided feedback behind closed doors, Policy Watch has learned. Neither the board nor Johnson’s office would turn over specific details given the cuts broach confidential personnel matters.

Yet programs likely on the chopping block this week include offices that provide services and support for local school districts, including intervention efforts in low-performing regions, state board Chair Bill Cobey confirmed.

Some offices are less likely to face funding reductions, Cobey said, including “core” services such as the school’s finance office and its testing and accountability office. The state’s charter school office is also likely to be spared, he says, given its meager staff of nine is charged with overseeing and enforcing state laws for, as of the 2016-2017 academic year, 167 charters in North Carolina.

Chairman Bill Cobey

And while he declined to cite specifics, Cobey said filled positions within DPI would likely be cut.

“Even though we’ll be cutting operational costs, most of the cuts will have to come from terminating people who are already in positions,” said Cobey. “That’s just the way it comes down. I don’t think anybody’s going to like the cuts we make, because they’ll have to be in the area of services to the districts.”

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Superintendent Johnson did not agree to an interview with Policy Watch for this report.

The state budget also bars school board members from making up the lost cash with transfers from various GOP-backed education initiatives, including the controversial Innovation School District—which provides for charter takeovers of low-performing schools—and other programs such as Teach for America, Read to Achieve, and positions in the superintendent’s office.

The budget reduction, which slashes operational funds for the department by 6 percent this year and by a total 13.9 percent (about $7.3 million) through two years, comes amid years of criticisms and similar budget reductions led by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Cobey says he hopes the downsizing will have only “marginal impacts” on school services, but he acknowledged rural and needy districts will be most affected because they often rely on key professional development and intervention efforts funded by the state.

“I’m always optimistic and education is principally a local matter anyway,” added Cobey. “But my heartburn is for the districts that really don’t have the money or the ability to accumulate the money. The wealthier counties, anywhere in America but also in North Carolina, they can accumulate money.”

A DPI spokeswoman said details of the cuts would be made public at the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting, which is expected to include “final action” on the budget. Cobey said this week that the urgency from his board is necessary.

“We’re trying to come to a decision as quickly as possible,” he said. “Because the more days that pass, the harder it is to make the cuts because it’s longer that people stay on the payroll.”

It’s been a rocky decade for the department. Public school advocates have long expressed concern about the impacts of the approved budget reductions on North Carolina’s K-12 bureaucracy, which had already weathered more than $19 million in legislative cuts since 2009, despite rising enrollment.

This year’s General Assembly-approved budget also set aside $1 million for Johnson to audit the agency, with a $1 million cut next year based on “anticipated savings.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to set aside millions for a massive expansion of a private school voucher program. The state is expected to spend $45 million on the program this year, with the plan to expand the annual allocation to $145 million in the next decade.

Lawmakers also budgeted the loss of 11 positions within the department, including five filled spots. Republican lawmakers came under fire for four of those firings, which included DPI staffers with ties to former Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson, as well as the executive director for the state board.

The state board is under Republican control too, but its leadership has clashed publicly and in court with the General Assembly over legislative orders to shift greater powers to the new GOP superintendent.

Adam Pridemore, NCASA

Last week, leadership with the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), which lobbies for teachers at the General Assembly, criticized the superintendent’s office for remaining silent during the budget process.  And this week, the N.C. Association of School Administrators (NCASA), an advocacy arm for K-12 leadership in local districts, expressed worries about the cuts too.

“We’re certainly concerned,” said Adam Pridemore, a government affairs specialist for NCASA. “But we hope that they implement things in a manner that will have the least impact on operations in the department.”

Wednesday’s meeting is also expected to take up a possible appeal of judges’ decision last week to side with the legislature and Johnson in a dispute over the powers of the superintendent’s office. However, much of the discussion will likely be held in closed session, as the board will address confidential personnel information and pending legal matters.

If there are layoffs, state officials would follow a “reduction in force” process, providing for 30 days notice to affected employees and hiring priority in other state offices.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.