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Two stories really symbolize the state of North Carolina state government this morning on the first day of Fiscal Year 2016:

The first is the gridlock that’s starting to grip the state’s public schools. With a final state budget agreement light years away and few clear indicators from state leaders as to where things are headed — other than perhaps slashing thousands of teacher assistants — Raleigh’s News & Observer reports this morning that “At least one-third of North Carolina’s school systems are suspending their driver’s education programs this summer until they learn whether they’ll receive any state money to help pay for the classes.”

Meanwhile, the second part of the story is crystallized in yesterday’s edition of the Fitzsimon File in which my colleague Chris Fitzsimon — who has closely observed North Carolina politics for the past three decades — explained how extraordinary the latest inaction by the General Assembly is:

“House and Senate leaders couldn’t meet their budget deadline of June 30, the end of the state fiscal year, so they approved a continuing budget resolution this week to give themselves 45 more days.

Next week they will be on vacation and two weeks after that many Republican lawmakers plan to be in San Diego for the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

It’s true, as supporters of the General Assembly have pointed out, that not having a final budget by June 30 is relatively common. Lawmakers have passed continuing resolutions many summers while they hashed out final budget details.

But the resolutions usually come after some effort at negotiations between House and Senate budget writers and the extensions are usually for 10 days or maybe two weeks, not a month and a half.

And there’s never been a case when lawmakers gave themselves 45 more days and promptly took the next week off. It’s especially noteworthy coming from Republicans, who promised a more transparent and efficiently run General Assembly when they won control of the House and Senate in the 2010 election.”

In short, state legislative leaders — who promised to “run government like a business” — are instead fiddling, Nero-like, while core state services they have already badly undermined crumble around them. All in all, it’s quite a mess. Perhaps the business they had in mind was Enron.

Happy Fiscal New Year!

News
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Teacher assistants ask Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Mocksville) to save their jobs

About a dozen teacher assistants from all over North Carolina came to the General Assembly Wednesday to tell lawmakers they’re not happy with the prospect of losing a significant chunk of their workforce thanks to a Senate budget proposal that eliminates more than 8,500 TAs from elementary school classrooms.

“It’s about the children and the future of North Carolina,” said teacher assistant Teresa Sawyer from Currituck County. “If you lose extra people in the classroom, what’s going to happen to these children?”

Senate lawmakers unveiled a budget this week that would rid North Carolina’s early grade classrooms of more than half of their state-funded teacher assistants.

TAs have been a target for state budget cuts for years—since 2008, the state has lost more than 7,000 of these instructional aides who also frequently double as bus drivers and first responders to medical emergencies.

Instead of providing enough funds to keep TAs in classrooms, Senate budget writers have proposed putting some funds instead toward hiring more teachers to reduce K-3 class sizes.

“It’s a good concept, because there is some research out there that says lower class sizes work better,” said North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants’ incoming president, William Johnston, “but [with the Senate budget proposal] you’ll get 2,000 more teacher positions and eliminate more than 8,000 TAs…you’re losing 6,000 sets of eyes to make sure that students get to where they need to be.”

“The safety of the children is being compromised,” added Johnston. “How are you going to cover lunch duty? How are kids going to get their medications?”

Others expressed concern over where the additional classes would be housed.

“Are they gonna give us money to create new construction?” wondered teacher assistant Lacy Autry. “In Robeson County, every one of our schools has three, four outside classrooms already. Where are you going to find room? We’ve taken janitorial supply closets to make classrooms. We just don’t have the room to reduce the sizes.”

Teacher assistants at the General Assembly on Wednesday also explained that a lot more is expected of them now than ever before, thanks to increased testing requirements and cuts to school nurses—and without their service, students will suffer.

“So if you don’t have that extra help in the classroom while teachers are pulling students out to work on testing requirements, children will just be doing a lot more busy work,” said TA Andrea Cranfill from Davie County.

And in Bladen County, the entire district has just four nurses to share among 13 schools.

“I’m the first responder in my school,” said Johnston. “We have a nurse maybe one day a week. So what happens the other four days a week if I’m not there?”

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TAs visit the office of Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph)

Many TAs administer medications, serve on crisis response teams and even administer catheters and feeding tubes, according to those who came down to the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Senator Andrew Brock, a member of the Senate budget committee, seemed sympathetic to the TAs’ concerns.

“I’ve got some issues with that,” Sen. Brock said in response to the prospect of the state losing TAs.

The teacher assistants also visited the offices of Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) and Senate budget writer Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville).

The Senate plans to pass a final budget this week, then set to work on a final compromise with the House this summer.

Watch TAs explain to Sen. Harry Brown’s staff the importance of keeping them in the classroom.

Commentary

Education cutsThis morning’s Winston-Salem Journal provides another example of how absurdly underfunded our public education system has gotten this morning in an editorial about the pay rates North Carolina maintains for teacher assistants.

Starting T.A. pay under the current state schedule works out by my back-of-the-envelope math to something on the order of around $12 an hour. There are plenty of chain restaurant servers who make more and this is well below the state’s living income standard. Stay on the job into middle age or retirement and you might eventually work your way up to $19 an hour.

As the Journal editorial reminds us, this is a preposterous way to treat the people entrusted with educating our children and a lousy way to attract quality employees. The editorial holds up the story of this year’s T.A. of the year — an amazing woman named Andrea Cranfill who has overcome her own disabilities to perform superhuman tasks working with challenged kids .

Cranfill’s service is clearly something akin to mission work performed at a great self-sacrifice. As admirable as this is, however, it shouldn’t have to be this way.  As any teacher will tell you, having a qualified and competent T.A. can make all the difference in transforming a classroom, or even a school itself.

So long as North Carolina is going to avoid the obvious solution of dramatically reducing class sizes to the point at which our teachers can have a reasonable shot at providing each child with the individualized attention each one deserves, the least we can do is pay our T.A.’s a living wage. Right now, we’re not even close.

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

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 

 

Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

trackingCuts-web-600Members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education approved a budget last week that eliminates 22 teacher assistant positions, thanks to a $911,000 budget shortfall handed down by state lawmakers.

According to chapelboro.com:

Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Todd LoFrese said that while the state budget would allow Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools to shift some money back into hiring TAs if so desired, the legislature slipped in some additional rules that would have resulted in eight more teacher losses than the school system could handle.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro also had to cut 4.5 gifted specialist positions and eliminate some custodial positions.

According to the Raleigh News & Observer, the city’s school system was able to move those TAs into other vacant positions, but classrooms in grades 4 and 5 will have to cope with less instructional support.

State budget cuts also forced Randolph County Schools to make reductions in force: that district cut 30 media assistant positions for the upcoming year.

RCS’ Public Information Officer Tim Moody said the district does have other vacancies available and it’s possible some of those media assistants were able to step into those jobs, but he wasn’t sure how many.

Each school in the district lost a media assistant position.

Gov. McCrory signed a 260-page budget bill earlier this month that spends $105 million less than what was previously budgeted for teacher assistants, even though he has repeatedly said he would only sign a budget that preserves all TA positions. 

School districts around the state are reporting that they have been forced to eliminate teacher assistants’ jobs and other positions thanks to budget shortfalls passed down to them by state lawmakers.

Do you know of budget cuts school districts are coping with as they begin the academic year? Send me an email at lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com