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Funding cuts to Department of Public Instruction in question

When the Senate released its version of the budget, one of its provisions (page F 13) revealed a 25 percent cut in funding for the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). In addition, the Senate budget calls for the elimination of eight positions at DPI or related to the State Board of Education. 

But a House lawmaker says a reduction that large is unlikely to make its way into the final budget passed by the General Assembly. 

“I would be surprised if they lean on that pretty hard,” Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said of the Senate cut in an interview Monday. 

Horn chairs both the House education and education appropriations committees, and he thinks it is likely that a compromise budget between the House and Senate will feature a smaller reduction for DPI. 

He said it is no secret that many Senators do not like the Department, but he added that history shows that the Senate often asks for a larger reduction than is ultimately included in the final budget. 

In the last two budgets passed by the General Assembly, the ultimate compromises usually included terms more favorable to DPI than what the Senate initially wanted. 

In 2015, the Senate initially wanted (page F 4) a 10 percent cut in the two-year budget. That percentage was eventually whittled down to 5.2 percent (page F 5) in the budget compromise. In 2016, the Senate tried for a 4.8 percent reduction (page F 8) in 2016-17, but ultimately settled for a .5 percent reduction (page F 9). 

“We’ve been down this road before,” Horn said. 

Of course, small cuts over a long period of time still amount to a hefty reduction overall. Philip Price, former chief financial officer for the Department of Public Instruction, said that since the 2008-09 recession, DPI has faced a reduction in 197 state-paid positions — about 31 percent of its workforce. 

The Senate’s proposed 25 percent reduction, which amounts to a $13.2 million recurring cut, would add to that reduction. Price’s initial estimate is that the cut would result in elimination of 111 of the department’s 433 current state employees. However, he said that the department has fixed contractual costs that will prevent it from making up more of the cuts through reductions in operating budgets. That restriction will likely result in the elimination of more positions beyond the initial 111 employees. 

Meanwhile, while the Senate is asking for a 25 percent cut to DPI and eliminating eight positions outright, it is also spending about $432,000 in recurring dollars to fund five positions that directly report to the State Superintendent — the person that oversees all of the positions in the Department of Public Instruction.

That person, Mark Johnson, was critical of the Department of Public Instruction during last year’s election campaign.

Johnson is also a party to a lawsuit the State Board of Education is engaged in over legislation passed during a special session in December that transferred some of the State Board’s power to the superintendent. Johnson has criticized the State Board’s position with regards to the legislation and lawsuit. Some of the eight positions cut in the Senate budget work with the State Board of Education.

The eight named education-related positions eliminated in the Senate budget are: 

  • Research Associate
  • Digital Learning Plan Project Coordinator
  • Director of External Meetings & Special Projects 
  • Director of State Board Operations
  • Legislative and Community Affairs Director
  • Legislative Specialist
  • Associate State School Superintendent
  • Planning and Development Consultant II

Attempts to contact Johnson for comment on the Senate’s plans for DPI were unsuccessful. A member of Johnson’s staff said he would be unavailable all week for interviews.

State Board of Education Vice-Chair Buddy Collins said the cuts could be detrimental to DPI. 

“Certainly a cut of 25 percent in the Department will result in the potential for significant disruption in services,” Collins said. 

But he noted, much like Horn, that this is not the first time the Senate has requested larger cuts. 

“It seems like every time the legislature has met we have faced a proposed reduction in our budget,” Collins said, adding later, “At the end of the day, the reduction has been relatively modest. I’m hopeful that is the case this time.”

But he is not so sure things will turn out in DPI’s favor. 

“Based upon the tenor of the attitudes of the parties, I’m less hopeful this time than I was in the past,” he said. 

Horn said in an interview last week that the Senate’s reduction to DPI didn’t make a lot of sense. 

“As I read the budget, there are a number of places where we ask DPI to do things,” he said. “Well, OK, what do we want them not to do?”

He said he was anxious to hear an answer from the Senate on that question.

In response to an inquiry about the Senate budget cuts to DPI, Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, a chair of the Senate’s education and education appropriations committees, sent the following statement Monday: 

“Studies show teachers – not bureaucrats – have the greatest influence on student achievement, so we are focusing our public education spending on providing major incentives to keep teachers in the classroom and substantially increasing principal and assistant principal pay. We believe a better use of tax dollars is to move those funds away from an unaccountable bureaucracy and into the classroom where those dollars will actually benefit students.”

Horn said Monday he hopes the House budget proposal will be ready to unveil on Wednesday. After the House budget makes its way through committees and passes the full House, the Senate and the House will work together to find a final compromise budget. That’s when the public will find out how much DPI is really being cut. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.