Budget holds surprises

Published 1:19 am Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beaufort County’s public school students could see shorter winter and spring breaks during the coming school year as a result of changes enacted by the state Legislature as part of the recently passed, $19.7 billion state spending plan.

In one of the special provisions in its budget bill, the N.C. General Assembly added five instructional days to the public school calendar, but it did not extend the school year.

That means local school leaders will be faced with robbing teacher workdays and days set aside for inclement weather or shortening winter and spring breaks, said Don Phipps, superintendent of Beaufort County Schools.

The budget provision will have an “immediate impact” with “very little turn-around time” on the local public school calendar, Phipps said in an interview.

“I’m surprised there hasn’t been more outcry over this,” he said.

The provision also requires public school leaders to continue to start the school year no earlier than Aug. 25 and end the school year no later than June 10, which will continue to delay first semester exams until after the winter break, he said.

Phipps and other school leaders have said they are reluctant to borrow instructional days from workdays teachers have traditionally used to finish their work after each grading period and prepare for the coming grading period.

The special provision may leave them with no other choice than to eliminate some school holidays, he said.

The change in the school calendar is just one of several dozen special provisions included in the 343-page spending plan approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this month.

The plan, vetoed by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue on Sunday, now returns to the Legislature, where at least one of the two chambers is expected to easily override Perdue’s veto.

“As I’ve reviewed the General Assembly’s plan for how North Carolina should run the next two years, I’ve found (it) is (an) ideologically driven budget that rips at our classrooms and campuses, our environment and quality of life, our services for the needy and ill, and the safety of our streets and communities,” Perdue said in her veto message.

Advocates of open government have criticized the use of special provisions in the state budget bill. Special provisions are often used by legislators of both major political parties to enact policy changes while skirting debate on the issue. They also have been used in the past by legislators tofund pet projects or punish political enemies.

Other special provisions in this year’s budget bill will eliminate state funds for Tryon Palace in New Bern, eliminate an organization that promotes North Carolina grapes and wineries, limit salaries for administrators of local Partnership for Children agencies and reduce public school class sizes in the first through third grades.

The budget would allot $49,000 per year for the next two years to the Aurora Fossil Museum through the Grassroots Science Program.

Total funding for the program would exceed $2.89 million in fiscal year 2011-2012 and fiscal year 2012-2013. The program benefits museums and science centers statewide.

“Thank heaven,” said Andrea Stilley, director of the fossil museum.

The money will help museum staff inform the public about science and reach out to the community’s school children, Stilley related.

“We try to do it in an enjoyable and informative way,” she said. “We are free to the public. We live on donations and sales out of the gift shop and small grants that are getting harder and harder to get.”

Last year, nearly 24,000 people visited the museum, Stilley related.

“Fuel prices really hurt us last year, and the economy being so low,” she explained.

The budget bill also would “intercept” about 25 percent – or around $17.5 million – of the master settlement payments for the Golden LEAF Foundation for the fiscal years beginning July 1 of this year and July 1, 2012, said Dan Gerlach, foundation president.

The Legislature’s GOP majority relied heavily on cuts and transfers to avoid a forecast budget shortfall.

Golden LEAF was created by the General Assembly in 1999 following the settlement of litigation between the state and tobacco companies. The foundation often distributes funds for rural economic development projects in counties that depended on the economic benefits of tobacco farming.

Gerlach said the precedent of diverting money from the fund wouldn’t be a good one.

“That said, we’re going to do everything we can to put these resources to work in the east,” he said.

Asked for an example of the work Golden LEAF does, Gerlach pointed to the foundation’s contribution of $500,000 to a children’s hospital addition at Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville. A groundbreaking for the addition was held Tuesday.

Staff Writer Jonathan Clayborne contributed to this article.