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Senator hijacks meeting to interrogate state superintendent

A legislative committee meeting took a turn yesterday when Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, questioned the state’s top educator on funding decisions for the Department of Public Instruction.

The Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee was in the middle of a conversation about the federal Every Student Succeeds Act when Barefoot asked Superintendent June Atkinson about reports that DPI was using money intended for the Excellent Public Schools Act to save jobs.

“I am in receipt of the letter from Lee Roberts, then the state budget officer, that advised the Department of Public Instruction that two of the methods that they were using to manage the flex cuts were not appropriate or within the intent of the budget,” Barefoot said.

He went on to ask Atkinson for assurance that no money meant to go to classrooms would be used to fund personnel at DPI or any reorganization of the department.

Atkinson told Barefoot the funds would not be used in such a way.

“You have my assurance that it is the intent of the Department of Public Instruction as well as the State Board that those dollars go to our schools to help improve reading, as well as the nine other provisions that are in the Excellent Schools Act,” she said.

In response, Barefoot reiterated his concerns.

“I’m just concerned and I want to make sure… none of the money that is supposed to go to children in the classroom is diverted away into new six-figure positions at the Department of Public Instruction,” Barefoot said.

Atkinson assured him it was not so.

The controversy dates back to Monday, when Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, sent a letter to State Superintendent June Atkinson and State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey, questioning whether funds from the Read to Achieve portion of the Excellent Public Schools Act were being diverted.

Last session, the General Assembly mandated a 5-percent ($2.5 million) cut to DPI, while also giving the Department $3.8 million additional dollars to implement portions of the Excellent Public Schools Act. Last month, we broke the news that Atkinson and Cobey were intending to use some of the extra Excellent Public Schools Act dollars to save DPI jobs that would have needed to be cut. The people in the rescued positions would have moved to work on aspects of the Act.

In an interview after her presentation yesterday, Atkinson said that since that report, DPI staff has had many discussions with the Office of State Budget and Management, which reviewed those initial plans. As a result of those discussions, Atkinson and Cobey changed the strategy. Now, none of the Excellent Public Schools Act funding will be used to save jobs, she said. It will all go to the schools. Instead, Cobey and Atkinson have identified 19 vacant positions that will be eliminated, Atkinson explained.

Atkinson said she welcomed the opportunity to set the record straight and had no problem with Berger sending her a letter questioning how she planned to use the funds.

“I would not want him or other legislators to think that we’re not following the intent of the legislation,” she said.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.