School jobs in peril

Published 12:36 am Thursday, September 22, 2011

Next week, officials with Beaufort County Schools could begin drafting a contingency plan for personnel cuts should they become necessary in the coming year, the Board of Education was told Tuesday night.

The cuts would be in the public school system’s preliminary budget this spring, indicated Laurie Modlin, the school system’s executive director of financial and auxiliary services.

“The year we’re really worried about is next year,” Modlin said.

Chairman F. Mac Hodges implied the board wants to stay ahead of any possible layoffs or job reductions, and keep staff and faculty informed.

“We do not want to wait until the last minute,” Hodges said.

The chief cause of Modlin’s worry is the potential loss of around $1.8 million the system had been allotted under a federal education jobs bill, she said in a post-meeting interview.

The bill, approved by Congress in August 2010, provided $10 billion “to support an estimated 160,000 education jobs nationwide and another $16 billion to help states fund Medicaid budgets,” reads an online news release from the U.S. Department of Education.

“The $10 billion fund will support education jobs in the 2010-11 school year and be distributed to states by a formula based on population figures,” the release shows.

School officials hope to learn whether state funding will help make up the shortfall, Modlin pointed out.

She forecast the system would operate at an approximately $1.1 million loss in the current fiscal year.

“It’s going to be a big undertaking, trying to get clarification,” she said. “The (latest) state budget was a biennial budget. We’re trying to get clarification if there is anything in there to make up those funds then start making our plans.”

Beaufort County’s public schools already have reduced their work force by approximately 6 percent since the economic downturn began, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction recently reported.

The school system has eliminated 62 positions since the 2009-2010 school year, including 29 teaching jobs and 23 teacher assistant positions, department data revealed.

System officials said they’ve absorbed these losses through attrition, retirements and the usual staff turnover.

“The results are larger class sizes, less classroom support and fewer course offerings,” Superintendent Don Phipps told the Daily News early this month.

Statewide, public schools have cut 16,678 jobs in the past four years, according to the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, a project of the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

State budget cutbacks have pointed the way to education jobs losses, North Carolina school officials have said.

The Legislature’s Republican leadership disagrees, as does state Rep. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort.

“I’d have to know more about the details of it, but as far as I can tell how a school system spends its money is largely up to the superintendent,” Cook said in an interview Wednesday. “We, in the Legislature, as I understood it provided for no teacher layoffs and layoffs of assistants. Now sometimes superintendents end up moving the money around in such a way that they end up having to let people go.”

School boards have some autonomy on how they spend their dollars, and that’s the way it should be, Cook added.

Contributing Writer Betty Mitchell Gray contributed to this article.