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Budget stalemate stymying schools’ efforts to get ready for another year

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With a stopgap spending measure in place, some lawmakers believe efforts to get schools prepared for the new year are humming along as the General Assembly battles over a final two year budget plan—but what’s happening on the ground tells a different story.

“We’ve already had to eliminate 25 teacher assistant positions,” said Pitt County Schools’ finance director Michael Cowin.

The reason? In part, due to a $24 million reduction to elementary school teacher assistants that’s included in a continuing resolution passed by lawmakers last month to keep state operations funded through August 14 while they hammer out a final budget. A number of other school districts, including Winston-Salem/Forsyth which has cut 55 TAs already, have had to do the same.

And with a proposed Senate spending plan that aims to eliminate more than 8,500 teacher assistant jobs statewide over the next two years, which some critics have said amounts to one of the largest mass layoffs in the state’s history, school districts like Pitt County have had no choice but to warn TAs of their possible fate.

“We put our teacher assistants on notice of the potential impact of the Senate version of the budget that’s being negotiated out by the conference committee,” said Cowin, explaining that if the Senate budget comes to fruition, they’d be looking at eliminating another 35 teacher assistant jobs, for a combined total of nearly a quarter of the TAs they have on hand.

But some lawmakers think the continuing resolution is keeping the status quo stitched together for the time being.

“This time it’s [government operations] being funded at 100 percent plus of last year’s budget, so nothing is being shortchanged,” Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) told WPTF last week of the continuing resolution that is in place through August 14, which keeps the state running until a final budget is passed. “It’s not like the operation of government is being affected.”

Stam’s colleague, chief House budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake), told a similar story to lawmakers as well.

To his knowledge, Dollar said as House members examined the Senate’s spending pitch last week, teacher assistants were funded at the same level as last year with the continuing resolution. Legislative staff corrected Dollar, explaining that there is a missing $24 million thanks to some of last year’s funds being non recurring dollars.

That shortfall is significant enough to force layoffs of teacher assistants even before a final budget is passed, said Pitt County’s Michael Cowin.

Vanessa Jeter, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said state superintendent June Atkinson took an informal poll recently of local superintendents to gauge how they were handling the state budget process.

Larger school districts were managing under the continuing resolution, only eliminating TAs’ jobs in accordance with the $24 million reduction the temporary measure handed down.

But more rural districts were taking the Senate budget proposal more seriously and considering larger reductions to their teacher assistants in anticipation of a budget scenario that forces large-scale layoffs of TAs.

“There’s an additional cost associated with that,” said Jeter, explaining that school districts would want to avoid keeping TAs on their payrolls or even hiring some new ones in the summer, only to then have to unhire them if lawmakers pass a budget that could eliminate their jobs as of July 1, 2015.

As the summer fades into fall and into the start of a new school year, school districts are hitting a wall.

“We are getting ready to open our classroom doors. … And we don’t have a clue yet if we’re going to have to (lay off) 500 teacher assistants or try to hire almost 140 new teachers,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school board member Tim Morgan, a Republican, said at a recent meeting.

Another big education program tied up in the budget stalemate? Driver’s education. Senators want to defund driver’s ed and eliminate the requirement for it altogether. House lawmakers want to renew the state’s commitment to providing driver’s education.

The uncertainty has forced some districts to cancel their summer driver’s ed classes—at a time when many students typically do the bulk of their driver training. In other cases, districts are charging families the full cost of providing driver’s ed — as much as $350 or more.

The cost of cutting TAs

Senate lawmakers want to rid the state’s early elementary classrooms of teacher assistants—whose numbers have already been whittled down consistently over the past several years—in favor of reducing classroom size.

Using some of the funds that would be available thanks to slashing 8,500+ TAs over the next biennium, local school districts would be able to hire additional classroom teachers to eventually get early classroom student to teacher ratios down to 15:1.

Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) cites decades-old research to support his claims that class size reductions are the best course of action for improving student achievement—a study out of Tennessee that Randolph County Board of Education chair Todd Cutler said is flawed and many researchers are unconvinced of the study’s results.

And there’s an additional cost associated with class size reductions that lawmakers didn’t propose funding: building out new classrooms to accommodate the additional classes.

“I don’t know how we would go about capital expansions,” said Pitt County’s Cowin. “We would have to figure out how to hire new teachers and how to use them in the classroom given our space concerns.”

Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill estimates the cost of building out the new classrooms to be about $100 million for his district.

“Are they going to give us money to create new construction?” said teacher assistant Lacy Autry when he came to the legislature earlier in June to talk with Senate leaders. “In Robeson County, every one of our schools has three, four outside classrooms already. We’ve taken janitorial supply closets to make classrooms.”

Another grave concern for educators is the academic gap that would be left by teacher assistants that are primarily tasked with making sure students read on grade level by the third grade—presumably still a significant goal for Senator Berger who was a key driver in the state’s Read to Achieve legislation that mandates all third graders read on grade level or be held back from advancing to the fourth grade.

“When you have a classroom of 15, that extra assistant in the classroom is very valuable,” said Pitt’s Cowin. “The TAs are able to provide individual assessments so that then teachers can look at who needs individualized instruction for remediation purposes.” Teacher assistants then typically carry out that remediation while the teacher manages instruction for the rest of the class—a model originally envisioned by former Governor Jim Hunt.

To do away with a teacher assistant is to do away with a position that has evolved over the years. In most cases, TAs fill in many gaps in the classroom that have emerged thanks to persistent state disinvestment in public schools.

TAs often serve as school bus drivers in many districts. Lacking an appropriate number of school nurses in many areas, districts also rely on TAs to provide health services like administering feeding tubes and acting as first responders to a health crisis. And they fill an important role when it comes to security.

What’s next

After weeks of seemingly no progress on budget talks, Senate lawmakers signaled their willingness to move on the budget stalemate on Wednesday.

At a press conference, Senate leaders said they’d remove policy pitches on sales taxes and Medicaid from the budget, in an effort to move along discussions with the House.

They also said they’d add back in $180 million to their budget plan, which is more austere than the House’s proposal, if House lawmakers promised to remove $500 million from their own.

Unlike the Senate, House lawmakers want to keep teacher assistants funded at the same level as last year — still well below pre-recession levels, but that move would retain more than a third of the current TAs the state employs.

The cost difference for keeping TAs fully funded is about $224 million.

If lawmakers can’t come to a budget agreement by August 14, they’ll need to pass a second continuing resolution to keep state government open while they negotiate a final deal.

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or

Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC

Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner is a contract reporter for EducationNC focused on child nutrition.