News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

Former DPI finance chief: Senate budget would “totally destroy” capacity at NC’s public school agency

The recently-retired finance chief of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction says a state Senate-approved $22.9 billion budget would cripple the agency’s ability to provide support and guidance for public school districts.

“The cut proposed in the Senate budget would totally destroy the ability of the (DPI) to deliver’s what’s legislatively required of them to do and also to support the school districts,” Philip Price, DPI’s former chief financial officer, told Policy Watch Monday. “It’s ridiculous to even comprehend how they would be able to manage it.”

Among its myriad controversial provisions, the state budget, which is likely to undergo a facelift in the N.C. House of Representatives, includes a whopping 25 percent cut in operations funding for DPI. That’s about a $13.1 million loss for each year of the biennial budget.

That’s on top of $15 million in cuts over the next two years for central office administration in the state’s school districts.

Senate Republican leadership pitched their spending package as a major investment in teacher pay and principal pay that focuses on outcomes rather than bureaucracy.

However, critics say the Senate’s sweeping cuts to the organization responsible for leading North Carolina’s public schools will severely hamper the agency’s ability to provide support in some of the state’s poorest districts, which are often low-performing.

Price agreed, pointing out larger districts with a deeper tax base are less likely to rely on DPI for professional development and outreach in low-performing schools.

Low-performing school intervention is a key function of the agency’s operations, although DPI also provides oversight and support in curriculum and finance, teacher training and more. The K-12 department’s emerged as a frequent target of GOP education reformers in the state legislature, especially in the state Senate.

“There is zero chance the department could effectively do the job they’re asked to do with that level of reduction,” Price added Monday.

Price retired in February after more than three decades at DPI, where he was integral in developing the state’s public schools budget.

Budget reductions are nothing new for the agency, which, since 2009, has weathered more than $19 million in legislative funding cuts and the loss of hundreds of positions, although K-12 leaders—including Price—agree this year’s GOP-proposed cutbacks would be particularly damaging, a point emphasized by State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey last week.

The DPI budget is just one of several areas of the Senate budget that’s spurred criticism from Democrats and public school advocates who note that—according to a new, nonpartisan report—North Carolina’s national ranking in per-pupil spending dropped to a lowly 43rd this year.

Opponents say the GOP plan’s proposal for about $1 billion in tax breaks for individuals and corporations will starve already underfunded departments such as DPI, although Senate Republicans said last week that they believe their budget plan invests “generously” in public schools while returning money to taxpayers.

“We understand that some want to spend more than this budget spends,” said Senate President Phil Berger, R-Guilford, Rockingham. “But memories can be short. We have not forgotten the mess we found in 2011, the result of years of spending growth at unsustainable levels and we feel strongly that when government collects more than it needs, some of that money should be returned to the taxpayers.”

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat who sits on the chamber’s education and budget committees, called the spending plan a “millionaire’s budget” Monday.

“They want to continue to under-fund and under-invest in public education,” said Chaudhuri. “That’s really the bottom line.”

Despite the potential loss of millions in K-12 funding, DPI’s chief administrator, newly-elected Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, has been quiet on the issue.

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Johnson defeated a Democrat, longtime Superintendent June Atkinson, in November, and since he took office in January, the GOP politician has been bickering with the State Board of Education, which is also controlled by Republicans, over budgetary and hiring powers.

Price declined to talk about Johnson’s office, but he said that he believes GOP lawmakers’ skepticism stems from a deep and long-running distrust of school administrators in the Raleigh-based agency.

“They seem to believe, based on absolutely zero evidence, that the department is a bunch of people who worship June Atkinson,” said Price.

In recent years, Price said he often sought to fight that perception. “Do what the legislature says, and if you don’t want to do that, you need to get the hell out of there,” he said.

But, based on last week’s GOP hammering of education bureaucrats, Price said that perception clearly lingers.

“They seem to believe the department is full of people who don’t support their agenda,” said Price. “I think the superintendent believes the same thing.”

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