Education funding tops legislature’s short session list
North Carolina legislators have returned to Raleigh for the General Assembly’s short session. In the weeks ahead, lawmakers will wrestle with Medicaid, coal ash and a $445 million budget shortfall.
“There’s a lot of things that we need to do,” said Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, “and I hope we stay in long enough to do it.”
The so-called short session of the legislature falls in even-numbered years and can be as short as a couple of months, depending on what legislators want to accomplish. The short-session typically tackles only the most pressing issues, with the majority of state business conducted during the long session in odd-numbered years.
Also on legislators’ plate during the current session is Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposal to give North Carolina teachers a 2 percent raise, a more sizeable increase for early-career teachers, up the spending on early-childhood education and double the funds — to $46 million — available for textbooks. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, has called the governor’s education proposals “a noble goal.”
“But I haven’t seen all the numbers to make sure we can pay for it,” Davis said.
Presnell is tentatively embracing the governor’s proposals. While stressing fiscal restraint, the representative said that her constituents depend on a quality education.
“Here in the mountains, a great education is what they need,” Presnell said. “If they don’t have one, they’ll end up at Taco Bell and KFC.”
Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, called the governor’s proposal “flat,” but said he’s hopeful the legislature will do something on the education front.
“Teachers have been under assault,” Queen said. “Are we going to stop that and turn the tide?”
Democrats equate the Republican education proposals to lip-service during an election year, an attempt to counter the backlash over stagnating teacher salaries and education cuts in years past.
“They aren’t even getting back to whole yet. We cut the whiz out of them, then give them back a small percent,” Queen said.
While legislators ponder the proposals, leaders in local school districts are hopeful that good news will flow from Raleigh. But even good news presents its challenges.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Jackson County Schools Superintendent Michael Murray, who also called the measures “nowhere near enough.”
Murray said he was particularly glad to see the textbook component of the governor’s plan — “we’re hoping that will include digital learning” — as well as the aspect allowing for higher pay for teachers with higher degrees. Murray also plugged the importance of more money for N.C. Pre-K, a subsidized preschool program for low-income and disadvantaged kids formerly known as More at Four.
The program’s budget was cut by Republican lawmakers, which became fodder for an on-going lawsuit. Funding levels aren’t enough to serve all the children who qualify, resulting in waiting lists.
“We need to do intervention in preschool, not just kindergarten,” Murray said.
Pay raise quandary
While local school leaders aren’t necessarily against pay raises for teachers, the raises can create a budget shortfall at the county level.
While most teachers are state employees, local school districts supplement staffing levels with locally paid teachers. Their salaries must mirror whatever the state’s are, so when the state gives teachers a raise, counties must follow suit for locally paid teachers.
“What that means is all our locally paid teachers will also receive that 3 percent increase,” Macon Superintendent Chris Bowen said.
In Haywood County, it would cost about $170,000 to match the state’s raises for its locally-paid teachers.
“This is just a rough estimate,” said Haywood County Schools Superintendent Anne Garrett said.
Where that money will come from poses a problem. Ideally, county commissioners would give the school district additional money to cover the raises. But she doesn’t expect that to happen.
“I do not,” Garrett said. “I’m just being honest with you.”
So that means the school system must cut from other areas of education in order to come up with the money for the state-mandated raises for its locally paid teachers.
“It would mean we’d have to cut positions,” Garrett explained, “unless we get an increase from our county commissioners.”
In Macon County, the school system has already put in a formal request for a budget increase to county commissioners to cover the cost of raises for its local match — 37 of its total 350 positions are locally funded. The school system has requested a total $500,000 budget increase over last year — which was already $400,000 higher than the year before that. A chunk of that is to cover the pay raises for locally paid teachers.
In Jackson County, the prospect of matching state pay increases appears less dire.
“We will have to match that money, but we’re encouraged,” Murray said.
— Reporter Becky Johnson contributed to this story.