Education leaders are bracing for cuts

Published 6:58 pm Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Staff Writer

North Carolina educators took a collective deep breath Tuesday as state House leaders wrestled with a proposal that could remove more than $360 million in education funding in the second year of the two-year state budget.
A document presented Tuesday to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education points the way to a possible 3.27-percent decrease in funding as legislators hunt for ways to plug a budget hole brought on by slow tax collections and other prolonged effects of the economic downturn.
The subcommittee is likely to vote on the document Thursday, said a clerk in the office of Rep. Marian McLawhorn, D-Pitt.
McLawhorn, a chairwoman of the subcommittee, was in meetings and wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Gov. Beverly Perdue’s recommended numbers would lead to a 2.17-percent cut in education, while the Senate’s approved budget would result in the smallest hit, 1.44 percent.
The General Assembly appears on track to marry the dueling percentages before the state’s fiscal year ends June 30, according to observers in Raleigh.
The education figures aired by the Senate and the governor were higher than the funding target identified when House and Senate leaders consulted Perdue before crafting their own separate spending plans, according to Bill Holmes, spokesman for House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange.
Perdue’s budget overshot the goal a little, and the Senate was “significantly over that target,” Holmes said.
House budget-writers would stick closely to the original game plan, he said.
“The numbers will probably end up somewhere between what the Senate proposed and what the House proposed, because it still has to go to conference and they still have to negotiate some final things,” Holmes commented.
Asked for comment on the House education numbers that could make their way out of the subcommittee, Don Phipps, superintendent of Beaufort County Schools, said, “It’s a heavy cut, it’s a deep cut, and it will impact us across the board in many different ways.”
Phipps continued: “Our opinion is that things are likely to change more than once before things are said and done.”
The central office is confident it won’t have to lay off employees — teachers, administrators, other staff — because of reductions in state money, but some positions will “become victims” as school officials achieve cuts through attrition and retirements, Phipps related.
“I truly feel like we’re being smart with the way that we allocate resources and the money that we spend,” he said.
Nodding to her faith in Phipps, Teressa Banks, a member of the Beaufort County Board of Education, said she believes “that decisions made by the school board regarding the budget cuts will be done in a transparent and thoughtful manner based on valid information provided by the superintendent.”
She added, “From what I understand, the goal would be not eliminating people from the system, but eliminating positions based on natural attrition related to resignations and retirements.”
The Associated Press reported that the state’s community colleges are seeking an additional $85 million from the state to deal with enrollment increases.
With the Great Recession sending thousands of members of the work force back to school, the state’s community colleges have taken in 31,000 new students — roughly the equivalent of adding an institution the size of N.C. State University to the system, said David McLawhorn, president of Beaufort County Community College.
BCCC’s enrollment has grown by 22 percent over the past two years, McLawhorn said.
The additional state funds would allow BCCC to hire and pay the instructors it needs to handle the expanding number of students, he stated.
Enrollment growth is built into funding streams for public schools and universities, McLawhorn said.
“Us, we have to fight the battle every year all over again to get enrollment growth,” he said of community colleges.
No passive observer, McLawhorn said he planned to travel to Raleigh today in the company of other BCCC leaders to make the case for protecting community colleges in the budget.
Holmes, Hackney’s spokesman, said lawmakers are “going to do their best to make sure our (education) programs stay strong.”
He concluded by saying, “I don’t know what the number is going to end up being, but it’ll be the best they can do, I’m sure.”