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McCrory’s budget includes funding for enrollment growth, new teaching jobs

The governor’s recommended budget is somewhat like the prologue of a long, meandering novel. It may give us a hint about what’s to come, but it certainly does not foreshadow all the twists and turns along the way.

Nonetheless, North Carolina public school districts, particularly large ones such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, must be pleased with the opening pages of this year’s budget saga.

McCrory’s budget projects an increase of 17,333 students for the 2015-16 school year.

The budget Gov. Pat McCrory introduced last week included funding for enrollment growth — something that, for the first time since the 1930s, was not guaranteed from the start. McCrory’s budget calls for $100,236,542 in 2015-16 to pay for 678 new teacher positions in the upcoming school year. Those teachers are necessary because of an increase in what’s known as the “average daily membership” in North Carolina public schools. McCrory’s budget projects an increase of 17,333 students for the 2015-16 school year.

McCrory’s proposed spending plan also calls for an additional $106 million to be placed in reserve to fund enrollment growth in 2016-17. That funding would pay for an additional 753 teaching positions to cover an increase of 17,701 public school students in 2016-17. In total, the governor’s two-year budget funds the creation of 1,431 new teaching jobs.

Last year, late in the legislative session and with little fanfare or debate, lawmakers approved a change to the way state budgets are calculated, eliminating the automatic inclusion of funding to pay for growth in public school enrollment.

Now, funding for enrollment growth is part of the expansion budget, meaning lawmakers can choose to fund it, but aren’t bound to do so as in previous budgets.

Previously, enrollment growth was automatically included in the continuation budget, essentially “baked-in” to the process before it began. Now, funding for enrollment growth is part of the expansion budget, meaning lawmakers can choose to fund it, but aren’t bound to do so as in previous budgets.

Much was made of the comments from Phillip Price, the Department of Public Instruction’s chief financial officer, who called the shift “the largest change in the budget in my lifetime.”

Supporters of the formula change, however, say the shift makes the budget process more transparent. In previous years, when statewide enrollment growth was less than budget writers projected, and they adjusted the spending plan to reflect the actual increase in students. Doing so looked like a funding cut when, legislators say, they were “fixing the glitch.”

Last week, Sen. Harry Brown, who co-chairs the Senate’s budget committee, told The News & Observer that the legislature intends to pay for enrollment growth.

If this feels like “inside baseball,” that’s because it is; soccer moms and dads aren’t going to grab their pitchforks over a complicated change in budget formulas—no matter how fundamentally significant the change may be.

School districts care deeply about this provision, however.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school leaders are waiting to see how the General Assembly budget handles enrollment growth, but are encouraged by the governor’s budget.

CMS superintendent Ann Clark told a community forum earlier this year that the uncertainty makes it difficult to recruit teachers in the late winter and early spring—when the best candidates are on the market. If CMS did not know it would receive state funding for growth until late summer, Clark said, it could mean losing out on quality educators for the district’s teaching vacancies.

“The best of the best get snatched up first,” she said.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the N.C. School Boards Association and other advocacy groups have asked lawmakers to return to the old way of funding enrollment growth. Charlotte-Mecklenburg school leaders are waiting to see how the General Assembly budget handles enrollment growth, but are encouraged by the governor’s budget.

Stories build drama and action until they reach a climax, and this year’s budget process is long way from its conclusion. The next chapter starts when lawmakers take a crack at their own spending plans, likely not until mid-April at the earliest.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.