Perdue on the offensive

Published 1:53 am Sunday, January 22, 2012

Gov. Beverly Perdue on Friday said the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly has harmed education with budget cuts she called “extreme.”
Perdue repeated her call for the Legislature to restore three-quarters of a 1-cent sales tax to forestall further education cuts.
“I have been deeply troubled, saddened, by the extreme cuts, if you will, from the Republican-led General Assembly that are harming education,” Perdue said in a conference call with the Washington Daily News and other media.
“My proposal is pretty bold, I know that, and it’s not politically popular, but everybody that’s talking about it will tell you it’s the right thing to do if you’re a courageous leader, and I try to be,” she commented.
Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, disagreed, indicating the sales-tax increase isn’t necessary.
“I think it’s bad policy,” Berger, Senate president pro tempore, said in a phone interview with the Daily News.
“I’ll leave it up to the governor’s folks to decide whether they think it’s good politics, but it’s clearly bad policy,” Berger said in response to a question.
Perdue said funding reductions passed by lawmakers resulted in layoffs for public-school teachers and teacher assistants, and the elimination of more than 3,000 college and university positions.
In the next budget cycle the state will see the loss of around $300 million in federal funding that could deepen these subtractions, according to the governor.
“That will translate, on top of what’s already been done, to really serious, severe impacts across our state in public schools, community colleges and on university campuses,” she said.
Berger argued there were 2,000 more state-funded teacher positions in this year’s budget than in the previous year.
“We’re finally starting to see some semblance of leveling out and maybe even recovery, and here (Perdue) comes again with another proposal to raise taxes,” he said.
The challenges to which Perdue referred were recently detailed in a post on the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s website.
William Harrison, chairman of the State Board of Education, authored the post.
“Districts across the state are facing similar challenges,” Harrison wrote. “Per the budget passed by the General Assembly last summer, school districts are facing more than $400 million in cuts to areas including instructional support (guidance, media), non-instructional support (clerical/custodial) and central office. On top of these cuts to specific programs and services, districts also will be forced to return an additional $74 million on top of what was required last year for their ‘discretionary’ reduction. This means that, for the 2012-13 school year, district(s) will receive and then have to return an additional $500 million. When all is said and done, these cuts add up to another nearly $1 billion in budget slashing for North Carolina public schools.
“In addition to cuts in state funding, districts could lose up to 5,000 more positions that are supported by the $300 million federal Edujobs funding that is set to run out at the end of this school year.”
While education officials say more state money should be earmarked for education, Berger suggests the issue is more about controlling the costs of government.
“I think at this point the problem we have is not that there’s too little being taken out of the economy to fund government,” he said. “The problem is more likely the other way around. Until the government gets its spending habits more in line with what is reasonable we’re going to continue to have economic problems.”
To Perdue, education and economic development are indelibly linked, but the governor appears to view the tightening school-funding stream as a hindrance to recovery.
“It’s who we are as a people and it’s what has built North Carolina’s economy through many of the areas,” she said of education.
The Daily News asked three members of the Beaufort County Board of Education to weigh in on this debate.
“Basically, I don’t agree to any additional taxes,” said board member Terry Williams of Chocowinity.
“I guess my skepticism is they may tell you they’re putting that in there for education,” but the money could end up being used for other purposes, Williams continued.
At the same time, the state has heaped on more requirements without providing more money, he pointed out. Williams mentioned the Legislature’s action on mandating more instructional days in the school calendar without appropriating the cash to pay for the tacked-on hours.
“They just need to be wiser with the money that they have to spend, and I don’t think the state is doing that,” Williams concluded.
“I support anything that’s going to further the advancement of education,” said board member Eltha Booth of Washington.
But, like Williams, Booth would want to make sure the added sales-tax proceeds are destined for education.
“If that’s where it’s going then, sure — I’m sure we would support that,” she said.
Teressa Banks, a board member from Washington, was equally succinct.
“I hate to see any increase in taxes, however any additional funding that Beaufort County Schools’ system receives would be beneficial and ease the financial burdens that it faces,” Banks said.