State cuts school funding

Published 5:56 pm Saturday, August 8, 2009

RALEIGH – Without traditional fanfare, North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue went behind closed doors here Friday to place her signature on a highly-debated state budget.

Before the ink was dry on the state’s $19 billion spending plan for 2009-10, local public education officials were weighing in on the budget, one that leaves school districts across the state facing steep cuts.

After weeks of debate in the NC General Assembly, budget writers sliced $225 million from the state’s appropriation to public schools (grades 4-12). The budget cuts also delayed the purchase of math textbooks in grades 6-12 (a savings of $48 million) as well as eliminated $38 million in funds previously used to help students who perform poorly on state-mandated tests.

All public school superintendents in the Roanoke-Chowan area said they were still awaiting the final word from DPI (Department of Public Instruction) as to how the state budget axe will fall in their respective districts.

“I met today (Friday) with Cindy Martin, our finance officer, and we’re thinking we’ve already made the cuts necessary to offset this shortfall in state funding,” Hertford County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John Fahey said. “However, we’re still two weeks away from what the state will tell us about these cuts. DPI will determine what these cuts mean for Hertford County.”

That fact, according to Dr. Fahey, has Hertford County Schools…“in a holding pattern in regards to our personnel decisions until we receive definitive information from the state.”

In May, the Hertford County Board of Education, citing the expected cuts in state funding as well as declining student enrollment, eliminated 13 positions. Those losses include five at Hertford County High School (two English instructors, one Social Studies teacher, a Science teacher and a P.E. position). Ahoskie Elementary is losing two Fourth Grade teachers; Riverview Elementary will see two of its Teacher Assistant positions eliminated; the C.S. Brown Student Development Center will be minus a Science teacher once the 2009-10 school year begins; and three Instructional Specialists – two at the Central Office and one at Hertford County Middle School – are part of the force reduction.

Two of the Instruction Specialists, one at the Central Office and the other at the middle school, were respectively transferred to teaching positions at Ahoskie Elementary and Bearfield Primary.

Hertford County’s projected enrollment for the 2009-10 school year is 3,173 students, down by 113 pupils from 2008-09.

To help offset any additional cuts, Dr. Fahey said he was shopping around for better deals on the professional services the school system uses annually.

“We need to buy smarter and do the most with the money we receive locally and from the state,” Dr. Fahey noted.

Over in Northampton County, Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy said the school system will be tightening the belt as state budget cuts begin to trickle down.

With the discretionary budget cuts, Northampton County Schools stands to lose approximately $400,000, according to Bracy.

“It’s tough times and not just for us as a school system, but for all state agencies,” he said.

Where exactly discretionary cuts will fall in Northampton County Schools is yet to be calculated.

“We’ll know once we get the budget,” said Bracy.

Bracy added school officials will also know more when federal stimulus money comes in.

Among the statewide cuts are $15 million in transportation and $2 million in supplementary funding, both of which Dr. Bracy said will have an affect on the school system. Other funding cuts include textbook and technology funding as well as reduction in funding for Central Office staff.

“People will be wearing multiple hats,” he said about the cuts to Central Office staff.

When asked if the latter could prompt cuts to the staff, Bracy said it was hard to say at this point.

“All we can do is tighten out belts and teach kids…that’s what we do,” he said.

In Bertie County, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chip Zullinger is working to make sure the state budget cuts do not affect the classrooms of the district. DPI has informed the local districts not to change the average class size for grades K-3.

“We’re waiting on the final word on the state budget allotments, but we’re anticipating over $400,000 in what are termed ‘discretionary’ cuts,” Dr. Zullinger said. “I’m in the process of evaluating those cuts and where to find the money.”

The superintendent said the process he was using was determined by standing policy of the Bertie County Board of Education.

“We have to use the overall direction that has been set by this school board from day one of me working with them and that is they want to protect the classroom at all costs,” he said. “That’s how I’m going about finding the money by first keeping our commitment to classroom teachers and keeping class sizes as small as possible so we can continue our improvement.”

Dr. Zullinger said his first goal would be to look at “overhead” for the district and reduce there to go along with the goals set by the board.

“We have been fortunate because we have scaled back overhead for the past six months in preparation for this,” he said. “We have positions that are vacant and have been for some time. That will go a long way toward helping us meet these cuts.”

(R-C News-Herald Staff Writers Amanda VanDerBroek and Thadd White contributed to this story.)