Leaders praise education decisions, rush to meet budget deadline


By Sarah Ovaska-Few - N.C. Policy Watch



Public education didn’t see the deep annual cuts that have become almost commonplace in recent years, as a proposed $21.7 billion budget from Republican state leaders was made public and faces likely passage this week.

Lawmakers in the both branches of the Republican-controlled legislature, up against a deadline of midnight Friday when their current continuing resolution funding state government expires, scrambled Tuesday to digest the 429-page budget released late Monday night.

The Senate held its first vote on it Tuesday affirming the budgets while their House counterparts, who have a rule that budgets must be publicly available three days before a vote, are scheduled to vote Thursday.

The Senate passed its budget on party lines, with Democrats in the minority objecting to the late night reveal of the budget that left many unable to parse through the hundreds of pages of budget documents before voting.

“We have asked the state to wait for months while we blow budget deadlines,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, according to the Associated Press. “Now that we finally have a budget and people are asking for a chance to read it before we vote on it, the answer is no … when it comes to respect for the voters, this is about as bad as it gets.”

The compromise budget is expected to pass both Republican-controlled houses without much opposition, before heading to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.

The budget is more than two months overdue, and included some controversial tax changes, including a slight income tax cut and broadening of the sales taxes.

Public education systems emerged with some high-profile items – like drivers education and teacher assistant positions – funded.

The Senate had proposed doing away with more than 7,000 teacher assistant position in favor of lowering class sizes, but the two sides ultimately agreed to keep teacher funding at 2014-15 levels.

Gone, however, will be some of the flexibility that school districts had with teacher assistant funding and school districts won’t be able to shift the funding to fill other priorities.

Senate and House leaders praised the budget in a preview they gave Monday, saying it was a sustainable budget that will allow North Carolina to move forward.

“I don’t think there’s anything in there that anyone will be surprised by,” said state Sen. Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the Senate.

But, as expected, there were some surprises.

Several omissions, cuts and decisions to keep funding at existing levels will leave those in classrooms from kindergarten to universities struggling to meet the needs they have, critics of the budget said.

“The General Assembly’s budget doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of our students and public schools,” said Rodney Ellis, the head of the N.C. Association of Educators, in a statement. “North Carolina can’t afford to lose a generation of students by disregarding the resources they need to be successful.”

Among the increases were an additional $52.8 million over the next two years for textbooks in the public school system, a much-needed increase that still leaves the state below what the state spent per student on textbooks in 2008.

The University of North Carolina system also some of its top priorities filled – with $49 million more each year to fund enrollment growth. Over the next two years, $16 million was promised to shore up the struggling medical school at East Carolina University and $6 million over the same time period to help Elizabeth City State University, a historically black college in the northeastern corner of the state, increase its enrollment.

But, the university system also received a large discretionary cut from lawmakers, more than $67 million over the next two years and on top of nearly $500 million in recurring cuts the higher education system has absorbed since 2010.

Here’s a rundown of what was, and some of what wasn’t, in the budget:

Education, K-12

Gives teachers (and all state employees) a one-time $750 bonus

Raises starting teacher pay to $35,000 a year

Increases textbook funding by $52.8 million over the next two years

Gives drivers’ education programs across the state $24.1 million in non-recurring funds for the 2015-16 school year, switches cost of programs to monies collected through civil funds and forfeitures after that.

Funds teacher assistant positions at 2014-15 levels ($138.1 million in each year), removes discretion that school districts could use that money in other areas

Cuts funding for school transportation by 5 percent, or $25 million a year, citing a drop in diesel fuel prices. That fund goes to pay for bus maintenance, fuel purchases and bus driver salaries.

Increases funding by $20.8 million over two years for low-income families to use private school vouchers, will now be $17.6 million available in 2015-16 and $24.8 million in 2016-17.

Includes a $2.5 million recurring cut for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, about 5.2 percent of their total budget. Cuts cannot be applied to the N.C. Center for Advancement of Teacher, the state’s two schools for the deaf and the Gov. Morehead School for the Blind. Also protected from cuts are the Communities of Schools in North Carolina, Teach for America and Beginnings for Parents of Children Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.

Limits waivers that local school boards can get from the State Board of Education.

Allows the State Board of Education to consolidate neighboring county school districts (but does not allow consolidation of city and county-based local education agencies)

N.C.’s community college system

Carves out $30 million over the next two years to be used to increase compensation of employees at local community colleges.

Increases tuition by $4 a credit for community college classes, will now be $76 a credit hour for in-state residents and $268 for non-residents.

University of North Carolina system

Gives additional funds of $49 million a year to account for enrollment growth in the UNC system

Hands $64.4 million in discretionary cuts to the UNC system over the next two years

Caps public universities at using $1 million in state funds for fundraising and development (for the 2016-17 year).

Gives Elizabeth City State University $3 million in each year to stabilize enrollment.

East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine also gets $16 million over two years to offset low revenues.

The Mountain Area Health Education Center (based out of Asheville) gets $16 million over two years to provide surgery and family medicine residencies in Western North Carolina

Gives Western Governors University, a Utah-based online college, $2 million in the 2016-17 fiscal year to bring the competency-based school to North Carolina (provided a $5 million private match is met)

Eliminates $737,000 in recurring state funding for the Hunt Institute, a public education think-tank based out of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill named for former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is an investigative reporter for N.C. Policy Watch.

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By Sarah Ovaska-Few

N.C. Policy Watch

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