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

Former DPI budget chief says N.C. school districts may have to “beg” again next year for class size funding

North Carolina school districts may have obtained something of a reprieve from state lawmakers’ controversial class size mandate this year, but the longtime budget chief for the state’s top public school agency says schools seem likely to face a similar crisis next spring.

“They’re going to have to come back again and beg next year,” says Philip Price, who retired in February after three decades in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), where he was a key leader in developing the state’s K-12 budget.

Price addressed a gathering of education reporters and policy advocates Monday as part of a seminar on the state’s class-size challenges convened by the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative.

State lawmakers reached a deal on the looming class-size crisis in April, as districts warned thousands of arts, music and P.E. teachers were at risk of losing their jobs without state action.

Legislators have ordered school districts to trim class sizes in K-3, with the stiffest reduction demands scheduled to take effect in 2018-2019. Policy Watch first reported on the issue last November.

On Monday, Price lobbed a few barbs at GOP budget writers, who complained multiple times this year that school districts have not been forthcoming in how they spend their state dollars.

“I have no idea why legislators are saying they can’t get reliable info,” said Price.

Price said lawmakers seemed “shocked and appalled” when school leaders explained this year that they would face major funding issues without state action, despite, he says, previous explanations of the looming issue by DPI officials.

“They didn’t like the department’s answers,” Price said. “They didn’t like their fiscal staff’s answers. They wanted a different answer.”

As Price explained Monday, the class size problem developed after state leaders acted in 1995 to do away with separate funding allotments for core classroom teachers and “specialty” teachers. Now, with state K-12 leaders lacking the necessary funding for public schools, districts have been forced to resort to “creative” means of maintaining school services, he said.

In some cases, that means transferring funds and relying on previously-granted class size flexibility in order to maintain arts and P.E. teachers not receiving their own funding allotment.

Without additional cash, districts say they would need to clear specialty positions in order to make room for more “core” subject teachers under the legislature’s class size plan. Along with the new teachers, districts would likely be forced to spend many millions to expand infrastructure to accommodate the new classrooms.

Wake County school board member Kathy Hartenstine

Wake County Board of Education member Kathy Hartenstine told reporters Monday the cost for Wake County Public School System (WCPSS)—the state’s largest public school district—would be “astronomical” next year.

The district would need to add more than 400 new teachers under next year’s class size directive, she said, in addition to the millions of dollars in spending needed to add classroom space.

“How in the world are we going to pay for these additional teachers?” Hartenstine said. “I worry about this. Am I going to have to be a board member who says we can’t have (specialty teachers) anymore?”

State lawmakers say they plan to use data gathered this year to assess districts’ needs for specialty teachers, with plans to mull a new funding allocation for the positions next year.

Rural and poor districts would face a different set of issues, considering their well-documented struggles in recruiting and retaining experienced teachers.

However, state lawmakers have offered no written promises on providing additional funding, despite warnings that districts may again be forced to consider laying off thousands of teaching positions next year.

Price said lawmakers should consider a new allotment for specialty teachers and boost the state’s overall spending for public schools, a longtime demand from K-12 advocates. This year, the state’s per-pupil spending dropped from 42nd to 43rd in a nonpartisan national ranking.

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

State Board of Education blasts proposal for 25 percent cut to Department of Public Instruction

Members of North Carolina’s top school board on Thursday took aim at a controversial Senate budget proposal to slash funding to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) by 25 percent.

“I can’t imagine this for this department, which feels as if it’s doing so much more with so much less,” said board member Wayne McDevitt. “And now we’re being asked to do even more with even less.”

The Senate budget provision comes after more than $19 million in cuts to the state’s K-12 bureaucracy since 2009, with GOP lawmakers often attacking the public school agency as wasteful.

State officials say DPI performs myriad support tasks for North Carolina’s local school districts, although one of its key functions remains providing training and intervention in poor and low-performing districts.

The Senate spending plan approved last month includes a recurring $13.1 million cut to the agency’s budget, a reduction that the agency’s recently retired budget chief warned would “totally destroy” DPI’s operations capacity. The House budget unveiled last week skips the deep cuts. But it does authorize N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson to commission an independent audit of the agency, including anticipated savings in the following year of $1 million.

Also of note: Both the House and Senate include varying cuts to central office administration in local school districts. The House budget report includes a $5 million recurring cut in 2017-2018, expanding the cut to $10 million in the second year of the biennial plan.

The Senate budget report, meanwhile, calls for a $10 million cut in the first year, and a $15 million cut in the second year.

Senate Republican leadership argued last month that their plan focuses on their spending priorities—including about $28 million in spending over two years on an upgrade to the department’s business system—rather than bureaucracy.

Johnson, a newly elected Republican, has not spoken out publicly about the GOP-controlled Senate’s proposals, although state Board Chairman Bill Cobey—also a Republican—has called on the legislature to reduce the funding cut for DPI.

Cobey reaffirmed that criticism Thursday, pointing out that, despite years of cuts, the House budget charges DPI with 21 new reporting requirements to the legislature. The Senate plan, meanwhile, includes 15 new reporting requirements, he said.

“The work keeps coming,” said Cobey. “And I’m all about efficiency, but there are limits to efficiency.”

McDevitt said Thursday that he hopes the department’s staff is expressing its opposition to the legislature.

“They need to hear in real terms the consequences of a 25 percent cut to DPI or a $10 million cut to the central offices, he said. “Eventually the support collapses. I know that sometimes we’re dealing with dollars but are we speaking out?”

Cecilia Holden, the state board’s legislative liaison, said staff has questioned the funding reduction, although she emphasized that her office is focusing on areas of agreement with lawmakers.

Members of the state House are expected to take a final vote on their nearly $23 billion budget plan Friday.

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.

Read more

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

In DeVos nomination, Sen. Richard Burr to cast confirmation vote on one of his key contributors

Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education

Despite significant push-back from progressives and public school backers, members of a key U.S. Senate committee are expected to confirm President Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, on Tuesday.

As critics point out, DeVos, a controversial school choice Republican in Michigan, has no professional experience in public schools. Nevertheless, conservatives tout her as a reformer who will aid children languishing in long-struggling public schools.

But here’s one overlooked component of this developing story: Richard Burr, North Carolina’s senior senator and a member of the Senate confirmation committee that could advance or turn back DeVos on Tuesday, has benefited from the political largesse of DeVos and her wealthy Michigan family in recent years.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog in D.C., DeVos’ family made individual contributions to Burr’s campaign in 2015 totaling $43,200. Family members each gave $2,700, the maximum amount per individual allowed for a candidate during one election cycle.

Of course, given the murkiness of federal election laws concerning Super PACs, it’s hard to gauge exactly how much DeVos cash went Burr’s way.

But it’s worth noting Burr, in the midst of a tight race with Democrat Deborah Ross last year, reportedly received a major boost weeks before Election Day from groups like the Senate Leadership Fund, a conservative Super PAC that pledged last September to spend a whopping $8 million on North Carolina television ads.

Records show DeVos’ family funneled $2.25 million to the Super PAC in 2016.

Burr is expected to cast a vote in support of DeVos Tuesday, despite blistering criticism from groups such as the American Federation of Teachers, the N.C. Association of Educators and more.

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

Tracking the Cuts: Jackson County drains $500,000 out of savings for its public schools; Rowan-Salisbury lays off 46 employees

trackingCuts-web-600The Macon County News reports that Jackson County will have to dip into $500,000 of its general fund balance in order to pay for teacher positions, teacher pay raises and teacher assistants, thanks to a state budget that disinvests in public education for another year in a row.

In addition to county support, Jackson County has taken the initiative to start cutting positions in hopes of bracing for the impact of the lack of funding from the state.

“We have been cutting back on teacher assistant positions when possible because of the trend to not fund them,” said Dr. Murray [Jackson County Schools Superintendent]. “We have currently only done this through attrition or through transfers within our own district. The trend statewide will be to eliminate teacher assistants in all areas except K-1 classrooms. 

Like so many other educators across the state, Jackson County recognizes the need for teacher assistants and hopes that the state level will make changes soon. “Our teacher assistants are valuable members of our educational family,” said Dr. Murray. “They are used appropriately and help reduce our class size by working with students in small groups and assisting the teacher in providing differentiated instruction in the classroom.”

Rowan-Salisbury Schools made  a decision on how they will handle the state’s budget cuts to public schools — they laid off 46 employees last week.

Forty-six Rowan-Salisbury employees found out Friday they will be without a job this school year.

“Schools operate like families, so when you lose someone on your staff — for a school, it’s like losing a family member,” said Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody.

Due to state budget cuts and a dwindling fund balance, the district cut 79 positions — 18 district-wide personnel, 15 school-based personnel and 46 teacher assistants.

Of those 46 layoffs, 32 were teacher assistants. Many of those TAs doubled as school bus drivers (see my story about this issue here).

It’s not the first time Rowan-Salisbury has had to reduce its workforce.

Since the financial downturn in 2008, roughly 300 positions have been cut.

This time the cuts are because of reductions in state teacher assistant funding and the district’s fund balance.

The state budget called for a 22 percent, or $1.3 million, reduction in funding for teacher assistants.

Got more public school cuts resulting from the new state budget to report? Email me at lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com