State budget impacts teaching assistants

Published 9:36 am Monday, September 1, 2014

As buses rolled onto campuses last week signaling the start of another school year, educators faced a two-pronged dilemma.

A series of complex changes to education funding in the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year gave teachers a much-needed and long-delayed pay raise with conditions tied to tenure.  After half a decade of wage freezes teachers received an average of a 5.5 percent overall pay raise, though younger teachers got much larger increases than those with more tenure.

But the budget also cut millions for teacher assistants while providing an equal amount of money for new teaching positions. Districts have the ability to use the money for either new teachers or assistant positions, and because the salaries for the two positions don’t match up, several districts are reporting funding gaps.

In the days after it passed, the state budget created a $105 million funding gap stream that lawmakers previously budgeted for during the 2013 legislative session. While some lawmakers say that provides enough funding to preserve teacher assistants’ jobs, local school districts are reporting otherwise – hundreds of teacher assistant positions are being eliminated this fall thanks to a budgetary maneuver that siphons $105 million out of the TA funding.

Mark Jewell, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, told the North Carolina News Service that with fewer teaching assistants now being shared among classrooms and grade levels, it will be impossible for schools to meet students’ needs.

“The quality of the work that they’re able to do has been diminished,” he maintains. “That’s a big concern for us out there, when you’re removing another highly qualified adult away from direct contact with their students out there.”

Teaching assistants work with individual and small-group learners, communicate with parents and help create materials used in the classroom.

“You can’t educate North Carolina children on the cheap,” he stresses. “And this is the kind of philosophy that North Carolina has transitioned to over the past two years.”

In the Roanoke-Chowan area, the four county school districts have taken steps to keep the teacher assistant attrition at a minimum.

“We started early on anticipating that this would happen,” said Northampton County Schools superintendent Dr. Monica Smith-Woofter. “While some assistants were not re-hired we had others that retired and still others that simply moved away from the district.  We held off on filling many of these spots and tried to handle (the shortfall) through attrition.”

For the 2013-14 school year Northampton County Schools employed 40 teaching assistant positions.  In 2014-15 they currently have 38.  Smith-Woofter says other elements of the budget-tightening included absorbing some positions and classroom sharing for other assistants.

“In grades 1 and 2 it has impacted us greatly,” she added. “With the population growth we’re having here in Northampton County we’ve had to add a fourth kindergarten class at Willis Hare (Pre-K through Grade 4).”

Pre-kindergarten and first-grade assistant positions were not affected in the budget, and Smith-Woofter pointed out that the Northampton County Board of Education also did not make cuts in one very crucial area.

“Our special-needs (student) population will not be affected,” Smith-Woofter maintained. “These positions we’ve worked hard to keep filled.”

The superintendent said she and the board will look at the budget in the very near future and hopefully though meetings they can re-assess their decision.  Squire Elementary (Pre-K and Kindergarten) won’t be affected.  Willis Hare will expand due to the population growth; and where she hopes there will be minimal effect will be at Gaston Elementary (grades 1-thru-4) and Central Elementary (grades Pre K-thru-grade 4).

“We will base it on our capacity,” Smith-Woofter concluded. “We hope to finalize a decision in the next couple of weeks.”

In Hertford County, Superintendent Dr. Michael Perry said the challenges in his district were similar.

“Hertford County Public Schools have had to let people go through attrition,” Perry says. “The cuts hurt because we can’t generate revenue.”

HCPS has also done some personnel shifting along with the belt-tightening.  The superintendent pointed out that the 3rd grade “Read to Achieve” program is one of the priority initiatives with teaching assistants that he wanted to remain untouched.

“Our principals are filling it (the need), and our classrooms are filling it,” Perry asserted. “Principals have had the option to move some teaching assistants, and I commend them for utilizing the flexibility to make it work. We’re doing our best, but we just don’t have the extra dollars.”