Lee schools face deep cuts with passage of state budget

Economic development, pre-K also see changes
Jul. 26, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

In Lee County, reactions to the state budget passed late Wednesday afternoon by the N.C. General Assembly ranged from dejection to cautious optimism.

Superintendent Andy Bryan, dealing with his first budget session as the new leader of the 10,000-student local public school system, said the purpose of education is to prepare students for life and for work. With the district facing millions of dollars in cuts, much of which the legislature is requiring via cuts to teacher and teaching assistant positions, he said, "I don't think that this budget supports that goal."

In the past, public schools received discretionary cuts, in which the state told them to cut a certain amount of money but let local officials choose where. This year, for the first time, the state mandated where those cuts — which Bryan said will come out to about $4 million — will come from.

The legislature declared that every school district must cut its teaching assistant force by 21 percent this coming year. Bryan said it's too soon to tell how many assistants will be cut because it will be based on how many children are in school this fall. The budget also calls for Lee County Schools to eliminate 33.5 teaching positions, Bryan said, adding that staff will be looking for ways to compensate for the state's personnel cuts.

"Obviously we're going to do everything we can do to protect the classroom," he said.

In addition to personnel, the state is cutting funds for low-wealth districts, including Lee County, as well as supplies and text books. The district also sustained a $500,000 cut from the Lee County Board of Commissioners earlier this year and is anticipating losing up to $600,000 from the federal government, both of which Bryan said make dealing with state cuts even harder.

SUBHEAD: Private school vouchers

With savings from cuts to education — public schools, community colleges and the UNC system will lose a combined $260 million next year — Republicans who wrote the state budget funded other ventures.

For example, a new $10 million voucher system will give low-income students $4,200 to attend private school. Public schools are funded based on their average daily membership, and the legislature expects their attendance to decrease as students take advantage of the vouchers, potentially saving the state money.

Bill Carver, headmaster at Grace Christian School, said he supports the voucher program and hopes it grows in the future.

"I would like to see this open to an wider group of people, and I think this is the start to that experiment," he said, adding that the $4,200 credit would cover tuition and leave only a few hundred dollars per year in fees unaccounted for.

"If there's people who are out there who are considering it, come out and see us," Carver said. "We want them to see what we do here and make sure they're making the best choice for them."

Bryan said he wasn't sure yet whether the district will work with eligible families to learn more about the voucher system. He also declined to comment specifically on several other controversial changes written into the budget, including the elimination of teacher tenure, a measure that would stop teachers with advanced degrees from being able to earn an extra stipend for their expertise beginning in 2015 and a plan to begin giving merit-based raises.

Bryan did, however, offer a general assessment of the situation, saying: "I think some of the things that were contained in the budget bill are meant to discourage teachers from going into the profession or staying in the profession."

SUBHEAD: Business and the budget

Bryan also said the budget will hurt economic development, a point Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Joyce echoed.

"Business runs on a well-educated workforce, and the chamber — along with all the other chambers — is following what the legislature has done with our public schools, community colleges and our university system," Joyce said. "I think we need to watch very closely what cuts in those areas are going to mean."

Under the budget, the Rural Center, which gave economic development aid to rural counties, was shut down. Joyce said he hopes its replacement, the Rural Economic Development Division, will be just as beneficial to the local economy. The most recent Rural Center grant to a Lee County business — to WST Industries last year — was for $80,000, Joyce said, and led to the creation of about 30 new jobs because it allowed the company to repair and move into a building in town instead of buying move-in-ready property outside the county.

"We leveraged a very small Rural Center grant to rehabilitate this building and add to our payroll here," Joyce said. "It worked exactly the way it was supposed to work. ... If the legislature, in their wisdom, thinks it needs new management, that's their purview. But we are glad to see something like it continue."

SUBHEAD: Pre-K funding

Initial versions of various proposed budgets were not kind to pre-K funding, said Lyn Hankins of the Lee County Partnership for Children.

Hankins, director of the group that supports early-childhood education, said she and others were worried that the legislature would cut off many children by allowing only those from the poorest of families receive state funding. It would've cut off about 50 children from pre-K in Lee County, Hankins said, but the final version of the budget kept the same income requirements.

All in all, however, Hankins's group reportedly won't be able to serve as many children as it did last year. The state as a whole had 5,000 temporary spots last year; and the budget cut those down to 2,500 but also made them permanently funded.

"Right now it looks like we will probably serve 50 or 55 fewer children, out of the more than 300 we served last year," Hankins said. "So that's not terrible. It's bad, but its not terrible."