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School busThe latest, maddening real world example of how North Carolina’s chronic under-investment in public education is harming our schools and causing destructive penny-pinching can be found right now in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School District. As the lead editorial in this morning’s Winston-Salem Journal explains, the school system is actually imposing a pay cut on certain bus drivers.

According to the editorial, the school system recently slashed the hourly rate paid to school activity bus drivers by a minimum of almost 8%. Many lost a lot more.

“Most of them were being paid a starting rate of $12.94 per hour, moving up according to a salary schedule for each year worked. But the board of education approved a change to pay them all a flat rate of $12.35 an hour on Oct. 27, effective Nov. 1. The district didn’t have a good mechanism in place to differentiate between activity runs and regular school bus runs for drivers who are eligible to drive both until this year, so the activity bus drivers had continued to receive their regular rates. For some, their payment is now significantly lower.

‘I lost $300 a month,’ Jessie Easler, an activity bus driver who works Monday through Friday, told the Journal. She’s a 40-year bus-driving veteran.”

To add insult to injury, the school system announced the cuts clumsily (“over bus radios” and via communiques to school principals and secretaries) so that many drivers weren’t even aware of it until they saw their monthly paychecks.

This is, in a word, outrageous and a classic example of how North Carolina’s disastrous education cuts of recent years are producing real world hardship. It was bad enough that most drivers weren’t even making a living wage to begin with, but to impose large, unannounced pay cuts on top of that in the middle of the school year is a classic example of how far our schools have plummeted under the state’s penny-wise, pound-foolish conservative leadership. Surely we can better than this.

Commentary

taxcutBThere have been multiple stories in recent days detailing the destructive impact that conservative budget and tax policy is having on essential public structures and services in North Carolina. During a time in which most states are rebounding and expanding public investments, North Carolina continues to muddle along and scrimp by like one of Art Pope’s weathered, low-rent chain stores.

Just yesterday, Chris Fitzsimon reported on the disgraceful situation in the Rockingham County public schools (home to Senate leader Phil Berger) while Cedric Johnson highlighted the self-inflicted budget crisis afflicting our courts system.

Now, this morning, comes an excellent editorial that sums up the absurd situation and the driving force behind it: destructive and unnecessary tax cuts. As this morning’s lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer explains:

“The General Assembly’s Republican leaders appear remarkably calm about what is shaping up to be either a serious budget shortfall or an income tax shock for those who have not had enough state tax withheld.

Tax revenue flowing into the state is running about $190 million below projections following tax cuts that took effect in January. That is worrisome because state spending already is at a spartan level. There’s no slack for filling the budget hole with easy cuts. The state could dip into its rainy day fund (even though it’s not a rainy day), but that simply puts off the budget reckoning for a year.

State Rep. Skip Stam, a Wake County Republican and House speaker pro tem, said the budget shortfall isn’t much given the state’s $21.1 billion budget and the federal government’s spending on North Carolina’s Medicaid and transportation projects. He told Time Warner Cable News, ‘The difference is hardly even a rounding error.’ A rounding error? It seems like more than that to state agencies that are trying to meet the needs of a growing state. Their budgets have been tightened first by the Great Recession and then by Republicans taking control of the General Assembly in 2011.”

The editorial concludes this way:

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On Friday, Chris Mai of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documented some remarkable numbers related to American support for public education. As her chart below shows, North Carolina’s dwindling support parallels a disturbing national trend:

 “Local governments added 20,000 education jobs in the month of August, the Labor Department reported today.  That’s good news, but schools remain in a big hole from the recession:  local school districts still have 297,000 fewer jobs than in August 2008 (see chart).

Education cuts chart

This means that, even as K-12 enrollment has risen — by 800,000 students between the fall of 2008 and fall of 2013, according to the Education Department — schools have fewer teachers, librarians, principals, guidance counselors, nurses, and other staff to help them.

Instead of setting our students up for success at the start of a new school year, we’re giving them less support than just a few years ago.