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EdExplainer: What to expect in the short session

On Wednesday, the General Assembly convenes again for a short session where lawmakers are expected to address the budget surplus and a number of education-related bills.

The short session differs from a long session in a number of ways, most notably that the budget already exists. 

During the 2017 long session of the General Assembly, lawmakers passed a two-year biennium budget. The second part of that budget, 2018-19, is already written, but lawmakers come back into session to change it based on new economic realities. Legislators can only speculate how much money the state will have at its disposal when creating its second year plan in the long session budget. A year later, they know the state’s finances and may alter the 2018-19 budget to reflect the economic realities. 

The General Assembly now knows the state has a $356.7 million budget surplus. This is the fourth year in a row where the state has had a surplus, though the figure is a little smaller than in recent years. It amounts to about 1.5 percent of the current spending plan, whereas recent years have seen surpluses of around 2 percent. Experts are also predicting another $277 million for the next fiscal year which starts on July 1.  

The other task for lawmakers in the short session is addressing specific legislation. During the long session, legislators file a variety of bills. Some never make it out of committee. Some pass one chamber of the General Assembly. Some are passed by both chambers and are signed by the governor. 

During the short session, lawmakers are not permitted to file new bills. They have a specific set of criteria for what measures may be considered. They may consider bills that passed at least one chamber of the General Assembly during the long session. They may take up legislation that impacts the state budget. Local bills are up for discussion, and lawmakers can take up the recommendations of study committees that met in the period between sessions. 

Other bills that may be considered include appointment bills, bills to take action on gubernatorial nominations or appointments, bills authorized by a joint resolution of the two chambers that passed by a two-thirds vote, joint resolutions allowing introduction of a bill, pension or retirement bills, vetoed bills, and election law bills. Check out our legislative tracker for more on what bills are still in play this session. 

While the rules are strict for what can be considered in a short session, Republican Craig Horn, R-Union, says that lawmakers often find ways around them. The short session is meant only to tweak the budget and consider the bills that are allowed. But he said lawmakers have used previous short sessions to make radical changes to the budget and have used the practice of proposed committee substitutes to gut bills and essentially create new ones. Often, the process of revising the new budget does not begin formally until well into the short session, he said. 

This time could be different. 

Republican lawmakers have already gathered prior to the start of the session to hammer out a budget plan, according to Horn. A spending amount has been agreed upon, the Charlotte Observer reported, and legislative leaders are looking at a figure of around $23.9 billion, which is already roughly $270 million more than they had planned for 2018-19 in the biennium budget. And last week, Horn said he was expecting to turn in his education budget draft to House leaders. 

Horn said the directive from leadership is that this year’s short session is supposed to be a simple one. The intention is for the budget to be simple adjustments reflecting current economic reality. And the bills considered will be only the ones that rules allow, without the proposed committee substitutes that have brought new bills into existence in prior sessions. 

Whether or not that ends up being a reality, Horn said only time will tell. 

Brenda Berg, president and CEO of BEST NC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of business leaders interested in improving the state’s education system, said she understands that the session will be limited in scope. 

“Since it’s a short session, we don’t expect to see any substantial programmatic changes,” she said. “That’s what I’m hearing over and over again.” 

The other important aspect of the short session is written in the name: short. However, previous short sessions have not always lived up to that title. 

Going back to the year 2000, most short sessions ended in July, with a few notable exceptions. In 2002, the short session started in May and ended in October. The last short session, in 2016, ended on July 1, which is earlier than usual. However, that short session also started on April 25, which is earlier than the typical mid-May start time.

Horn said he is cautiously optimistic that this session will have an even earlier end than usual. He said an adjournment by the middle of June is possible. 

Given all that, what can the public expect from the short session? Here is a preview. 

The Budget

There are two wild cards that could affect wide swaths of the budget, depending on lawmakers’ reactions. 

One is the $350 million surplus, and the other is the teacher rally expected in Raleigh on Wednesday. As of this writing, at least 38 districts have canceled school because many teachers requested time off to join the protest. The gathering on the first day of session signals pressure by educators on legislators.

“Obviously, the big story this week is the teacher march,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. 

Teachers are scheduled to receive a 6.5 percent average pay increase in 2018-19, according to the biennium budget. Legislative leaders have said that will likely remain the same, despite the budget surplus. There has been some talk of adding targeted bonuses on top of those raises. 

Governor Roy Cooper has already released his budget proposal for 2018-19, and it differs considerably from the General Assembly’s biennium budget bill on teacher pay. He said his plan will give a minimum 5 percent pay increase to all teachers, with some making as much as 14.8 percent more. Although under the Republican plan the average increase is 6.5 percent, not all teachers, particularly veterans, receive pay raises. Under Gov. Cooper’s plan, every teacher would receive an increase. It would cost more money to implement the governor’s plan, a difference he plans to fund through changes to the personal income tax and corporate tax cuts slated to go into effect next year. 

Will the teacher rally influence the session?

Yesterday, the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) announced its priorities for the rally. Teacher pay is not the sole focus of the rally, but it is a key part of the educators’ calls for change. 

North Carolina is 37th in the nation for teacher pay, up from 47th in 2013-14. And in the run up to the short session, Republican leaders are touting consecutive pay raises over multiple years that brought average teacher pay above $50,000.

Poston says the state needs to do more. 

“We should have as our goal at least the national average and number one in the Southeast, both in teacher pay and per pupil spending,” he said. 

On the Forum’s top 10 education issues of 2018, recruiting and retaining the “best and brightest teachers and principals” was number four. Teacher and principal pay is a part of the effort. 

Principal pay

Principals received a pay raise for both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 budget last year. The legislation increased principal pay by an average of 8.6 percent over two years, and assistant principals received a 13.4 percent average increase over the biennium. 

A new principal pay schedule includes a base salary related to school size with the potential for more money depending on whether their schools did not meet, met, or exceeded academic growth. 

The governor proposed an average 8 percent pay raise for all principals and assistant principals in 2018-19, and his revised budget plan changes the principal pay schedule, basing it on experience and the size of the school a principal oversees. 

The governor’s budget also extends a hold harmless provision that prevents principals who made more under the previous pay schedule (in existence prior to last year’s long session) from receiving less under the new schedule. The hold harmless was originally only in the budget for one year, meaning those principals who were held harmless might have seen pay drops next year. However, the General Assembly is also expected to extend the hold harmless provision. 

“Bare minimum, they need to extend the hold harmless, because estimates are about 20 percent of our principals, mostly veteran principals, will actually lose pay starting with the new school year,” Poston said. 

Poston said the principal salary schedule’s emphasis on academic growth is a mistake. 

 “We believe the emphasis on short-term test score improvement is going to be a disincentive for our best principals to move where they’re needed most,” he said. 

It takes time to grow a school academically, and the challenge is greater in low-performing schools. Poston said the structure of the current principal pay schedule will prevent principals from taking on the hard jobs at struggling schools where they are needed most. 

Berg said principal pay is particularly important for BEST NC this session. Her organization wanted an investment of $55 million for principal pay raises during the long session, but lawmakers budgeted $25 million. She hopes that will change in the short session. 

“We need 20 million to keep moving us in that direction, to keep us competitive with surrounding states,” she said. 

And the budget surplus could help with that, she said. 

“We’re all in on the importance of school leadership to benefit both the teachers and the students,” Berg said. 

School Safety

Beyond salaries, school safety will likely be a key subject of this session.

A committee on school safety came into existence following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The committee studied what it would take to keep schools safe, and elements of that work could be included in the budget.

At the most recent meeting of the committee, members approved a number of recommendations that could gain traction either in the budget or elsewhere during the session. 

One of the recommendations was the expansion of SPK UP NC application: an anonymous tip line that allows students to report suspicious behavior. 

Other recommendations including measures to increase support for students’ social and emotional needs, implementation of threat assessment teams in schools, and changes in criminal laws. 

The committee also recommended more school resource officers, counselors, nurses and social workers, which dovetails with the $130 million plan in Gov. Cooper’s revised budget proposal as well. 

“The debate over the size of funding to go to school safety issues and how to spend it is going to be an issue I’m sure the General Assembly is going to tackle,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

Poston is focused on school safety as well, saying there are a lot of positives that came out of the school safety committee as well as the governor’s proposed budget plan, particularly around the emphasis on funding for student mental health services and increased personnel such as school resource officers, psychologists, social workers, and others. 

But he said he would like some guardrails around increased school resource officers because of concerns about discipline disparities and racial equity. 

Poston also said addressing the school safety issues would go some distance to meeting the demands which form the basis of this week’s teacher rallies. 

“These are the kinds of things that teachers are looking for as part of their decisions to come to Raleigh this week to rally,” he said. “It’s around school supports and resources. It’s about guidance counselors and school nurses,” he said, though he added that the rally is also about things like textbook funding, school supplies, and technology. 

K-3 class size and early childhood measures

One item not on the agenda for the short session is the K-3 class size measure.  It was the number one issue on the Public School Forum’s top 10 list back in January. In February, the legislature resolved the conundrum. 

Under the restrictions, which were slated to go into full effect next year, districts complained that they would be forced to eliminate “enhancement teachers” (physical education, music, arts). The General Assembly decided to phase in the restrictions and create a dedicated funding stream for enhancement teachers. A complaint by districts that the restrictions would require them to build more classrooms — a financial burden on localities — was left unanswered in the General Assembly’s measure. 

Another issue on the Public School Forum’s list was early childhood education, and the issue was also addressed by the General Assembly in February. 

Lawmakers allocated more funding for the NC Pre-K program. After the last long session of the General Assembly, lawmakers included funding in the budget for 3,535 new seats for NC Pre-K, cutting the program’s waiting list by 75 percent. Lawmakers said the additional funds in the bill passed in February would eliminate the waiting list by the 2020-21 school year. 

Early childhood advocates say eliminating the waiting list is only part of the solution. There are many more children who need early childhood education than those who make it on the list; more money would help address that problem, and with a budget surplus, expanding pre-K funding could be possible. 

Superintendent Johnson and the Department of Public Instruction

The long session budget also imposed cuts to the state Department of Public Instruction’s budget in both years of the biennium. A $5.1 million reduction is slated for next year under the original document. Gov. Cooper’s budget reverses those cuts. Following an audit of DPI championed by Superintendent Mark Johnson, he and the State Board of Education are asking lawmakers to delay those cuts. It is not a foregone conclusion that they will listen, but a delay is possible. 

“I think the chances are pretty good that they will hold off on the cuts,” Stoops said.

But he said the audit only gives Johnson so much guidance on how to reform the department. The heavy lifting is going to fall on the superintendent, Stoops said. 

“I think he will continue to have to dig into the issue on his own,” he said. 

Legislation

One education bill received attention in between sessions. House Bill 514 would permit two towns, Matthews and Mint Hill, to run their own charter schools. The towns’ governing bodies would act at the board of directors and town residents would receive preference for enrollment— a contrast to the normal procedure for charter school enrollment. 

The two towns are part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, and the possibility presented by House Bill 514 is now attracting another CMS suburb: Huntersville.

“By far, that will be the most interesting debate, because there are so many interesting questions wrapped up in the debate over a municipally run charter school,” Stoops said.

Poston agreed that this bill is important, and he said he hopes the Senate will reject it. 

“We think it’s a very dangerous precedent that will only further resegregate and undercut support for public education in our communities,” he said. 

The bill passed the House last year and could be considered in the Senate when session starts. 

Bills seeking calendar flexibility to local school districts are commonplace in the long sessions. At present, the General Assembly requires traditional-calendar schools to start no sooner than the Monday closest to August 26 and finish no later than the Friday closest to June 11. Critics argue the state is too geographically diverse for a state body to decide when the school year starts and stops. 

Calendar flexibility bills have not traditionally found support for passage, but House Bill 375 tries to find a middle ground. It would allow a local school district to align its calendar with the schedule of the community college in their area so students can better structure their classes to take classes at community college while in high school. This synchronization is one reason many schools want school calendar flexibility. A school would not be able to open earlier than August 15 under the bill.

Horn, one of the sponsors of House Bill 375, said that he is hopeful that school flexibility in some form will come back up for discussion during this short session. 

Another important measure for both for Horn and Poston is House Bill 866/Senate Bill 542. This complementary pair of bills would give North Carolina residents a vote on a $1.9 billion bond that could be used to fund public school facilities. 

Horn has mentioned the bill at different times as a possible fix for the space shortage some public schools say they face under the K-3 class size restrictions. Facility funds usually come through districts, not the state, so district leaders say the restrictions amount to an unfunded mandate. Poston said the bill is important to meet the state’s education facility needs generally. And though the bill did not pass either session of the General Assembly, it is still in play since it has a budgetary impact. 

While several education measures are at play in the session, Stoops said this short session seems like it is focused elsewhere.

“Mercifully, I don’t know that education is going to be the hottest of the topics,” he said. 

Here is a recap of the long session from last year. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.