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Democrats decry process as revised budget makes its way through committees

Updated 4:23 p.m.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate debated the merits of the Republican’s 2018-19 revised budget today in a lengthy joint appropriations committee meeting this morning before giving it approval to move onto other committees this afternoon. 

Between committee meetings, Democratic lawmakers joined together for a press conference to speak their minds about both the content of the budget and the process by which it is being considered, criticizing Republican leaders for putting the bill into a conference report so amendments could not be added to the proposed plan. 

“We are in the middle of a budget process not seen in decades,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, the House minority leader. “The public had no involvement. Our caucus had no involvement. Many in the other caucus had no involvement.” 

During the press conference, Democrats presented a few of the amendments they would have filed if they were allowed, including amendments on school safety, teacher pay, and more. 

Republican leaders such as Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, one of the chief education budget writers for the House, have said since before the session that this budget was meant only to tweak the two-year budget passed during the long session last year, not radically restructure policy or funding.  

Click here for the budget money report

Budget Bill

With a budget surplus, additions were expected to many parts of the budget. Average raises for educators roughly follow the plan laid out last year with some changes. Teachers receive a 6.5 percent average pay raise — instead of the 6.2 percent planned last year — but the budget also includes raises for veteran teachers (25+ years of experience). They will now make about $52,000 a year instead of the $51,300 planned in the two-year budget. 

Chart courtesy of North Carolina General Assembly

After radically restructuring the principal pay schedule and pouring $35.4 million into principal and assistant principal raises last year, lawmakers added even more money for principal salaries in the revised 2018-19 budget. Originally, the second year of the biennium budget had about $5 million more to cover pay raises for assistant principals, but the revised budget adds an additional $12 million for principals alone. That means principals will see an average increase of 6.9 percent this coming year. 

Chart courtesy of the General Assembly

The bonus program for principals was also tweaked. Principals in the top 50 percent of all schools for academic growth will get a bonus, while principals in that top 50 percent who worked in D or F schools last year will get double the bonus. A principal running a school in the top 50 percent of academic growth that received a D or F last year could potentially get a $20,000 bonus. Here is how those bonuses break down:

Chart courtesy of General Assembly

Addressing a controversial measure, lawmakers extended the hold harmless provision for the principal pay schedule another year. The hold harmless prevents principals who made more under the previous pay schedule from seeing a reduction in salary. One of the criticisms of the revamped principal pay schedule in the long-session budget last year was that the hold harmless only lasted for this school year, meaning some principals who got paid more under the previous pay schedule would see a pay drop. Now, those principals will continue, for another year, to make what they would have made before the pay schedule was revamped.

Shirley Prince, the executive director of the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals’ Association, weighed in on the budget’s principal pay plan in a press release this afternoon. 

“These changes reflect many of the concerns we and NCASA raised on behalf of principals once the current pay plan was implemented,” Prince said.  “We remain committed to working with lawmakers and our other state leaders to making additional principal pay plan and funding improvements at the earliest possible date.”

Governor Roy Cooper had different plans for teachers and principals under his proposed budget. 

In his plan, teachers would have received an average 8 percent pay raise. That would have meant a minimum 5 percent pay increase to all teachers, with some making as much as 14.8 percent more. It would cost more money to implement the governor’s plan, a difference he planned to fund through changes to the personal income tax and corporate tax cuts slated to go into effect next year. 

The governor proposed an average 8 percent pay raise for all principals and assistant principals in 2018-19, and his revised budget plan changed the principal pay schedule, basing it on experience and the size of the school a principal oversees. The governor’s budget proposal also extended the hold harmless provision. 

Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncome, talked about the need for higher teacher pay during the press conference, supporting the governor’s proposal as a better way to ensure fair raises for all teachers. 

“North Carolina has fallen nearly $10,000 behind the national average in teacher pay,” she said. “We will never catch up if we give meaningful raises to some teachers, but not others.” 

The budget includes $28 million in new, mostly one-time, grant money for school safety. The funds cover a diverse array of areas, including an app for students to report threats, more money for school personnel, training for mental health professionals, and funding to make school buildings safer. 

Photo courtesy of legislative Republicans

Governor Roy Cooper has his own school safety plan in his budget proposal. It amounts to a total of $130 million, including $65 million for making buildings safer and $40 million for additional personnel. Legislative Democrats also floated a similar plan, which included some gun control measures as well.

In an e-mailed statement, Cooper criticized the Republicans budget proposal. 

“It’s clear that the Republican legislature continues to leave veteran teachers and public education behind in order to protect their tax breaks for corporations and people making over $200,000 a year,” he said. “There are still many more questions than answers in this budget as people try to read and understand major policy changes the Republicans have kept secret and are now forcing legislators to vote up or down with no way to amend it.”

In the lengthy joint appropriations committee meeting this morning, numerous Democrats called out the school safety budget in particular, asking why one-time grant money was being used instead of recurring funds. 

Rep. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg, said the funding was short-sighted. 

“This seems to be a short-term solution to what we’re seeing as a long-term problem in the country,” she said. 

Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, who served on the school safety committee that explored the issues making their way into the budget, said the one-time money was necessary while the state gathers information about districts’ needs. 

“We are trying to get data so we can get the problems solved and use another way of funding rather than throwing it here, there, and over yonder,” she said. 

Rep. Bobbie Richardson, D-Nash, said Cooper’s plan would more adequately address school safety.

 “There is a better way…the public deserves to see a vote on aspects of that plan,” she said. 

She also noted the Republican plan does not include measures Democrats support, such as banning bump stocks, that could have taken the state further towards making sure students are safe in school.

While the budget was not supposed to have much in the way of policy changes, according to Republican leaders, it does include a few education-related ones. One provision forces the State Board of Education to do a roll call on most motions, which breaks from the Board’s tradition of doing mainly voice votes. Another provision allows the Innovative School District to run schools that join the ISD if a suitable management operator cannot be found.

The Innovative School District is a program that will ultimately take over five of the state’s lowest performing schools, allowing them to be run by outside organizations, including for-profit charter and education management organizations. ISD Superintendent Eric Hall had some problems finding a suitable management organization for the inaugural ISD school in Robeson County. Initially he had said he could not support either of two organizations that had applied, but eventually, after working with them to bolster their applications, he settled on Charlotte-based Achievement for All Children. 

The budget does not reverse the $5.1 million in planned budget reductions for the State Department of Public Instruction, despite State Superintendent Mark Johnson and State Board members asking the General Assembly to do so. A recent $1 million audit of the department suggested significant long-term changes to the structure of DPI, and the letter sent from Johnson and the Board said that implementing those changes would be difficult if the budget was cut further. The revised 2018-19 budget does, however, let DPI offset some of the budget cuts for one year using $3 million in reversions. 

Rep. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, speaking about the revised 2018-19 budget at the Joint Appropriations Committee (Alex Granados/EducationNC)

During the morning’s joint appropriations committee Several Democrats questioned $200,000 in grant-in-aid money going to an organization called DonorsChoose, Inc. That money would be used for classroom supplies in a number of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Democrats questioned how the schools were chosen. Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, co-chair of the Senate appropriations committee, said the schools were chosen by a lawmaker who was given discretion to use the money as he/she wished. 

Rep. John Autry, D-Mecklenburg, one of the Democrats asking about the money, responded: “How does another member of this body submit such a list?” Richardson tweeted that she was not given funds to do with as she wanted.

Another provision in the budget would allow municipal governments to use property taxes to pay for public education, something which solves a problem faced by House Bill 514. House Bill 514 is the bill that would allow the Charlotte-Mecklenburg towns of Matthews and Mint Hill to start and operate their own charter schools. A report last week found that the towns would not be able to build such schools because towns are not allowed to incur debt, meaning they would have to pay for the schools up front. The report also stated that towns could not raise property taxes for schools without a public referendum. 

The provision in the budget not only would let cities use property taxes for education, it also says that taxpayers will not be held liable for school-related debt, clearing the way for House Bill 514, which passed the House last year but still has not passed the Senate.

Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, said during the afternoon’s finance committee meeting that there are too many unanswered questions about how this provision would work. 

“Nowhere have we ever turned to our cities to say you now have the power to get into the school funding debate,” she said. “I think this is a drastic move without enough discussion.” 

She went on to ask if counties and cities have weighed in, saying that she had checked to see if anybody has opinions on the provision, but it is so new that most people don’t know a lot about it yet. 

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, also talked on the provision during the finance committee, saying he liked it but that what it allows isn’t a simple measure and more investigation will be needed to understand how it will work. 

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, said in an interview that this provision amounts to a huge change in how education is funded. And he argues it is too far reaching.

“If this was restricted to Matthews and Mint Hill and giving them the authority to do this, I think to a certain extent some of us would just shrug our shoulders,” he said. 

But this provision has implications for every county in the state; he said he thinks most cities will not want to use the new powers it gives them. 

“It’s going to create massive pressure,” he said. 

The Senate education committee will take up House Bill 514 tomorrow at noon. 

Rep. Henry Michaux, D-Durham, giving comments during the Democratic press conference, called the General Assembly process today “a rape of this budget.” 

“We’ve witnessed a really sad day in the state of North Carolina, where more than half of the population has been shut out of the process altogether,” he said, adding later, “I’m having trouble reconciling whether I’m in North Carolina or North Korea.” 

Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, and other Democrats discuss the revised 2018-19 budget proposal (Alex Granados/EducationNC)

In an e-mailed press release, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, called on Democrats to support the budget plan. 

“The main purpose of our short session is to make necessary adjustments to the sound, two-year budget that is already in place, and that’s exactly what our members accomplished,” Berger said. “Gov. Cooper and legislative Democrats should add their support to this plan that prioritizes public education, provides a fifth consecutive teacher pay raise and offers substantial tax relief for millions of North Carolinians.”

After the budget clears all of the scheduled committees today, the plan goes on to the full House and Senate, both of which are expected to vote on it this week.  

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.