BOE, commissioners talk teaching assistants, budget

Boards find common ground on education-related topics
Jun. 04, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Despite past interactions that have been icy or even accusatory, a budget meeting between the Lee County Board of Commissioners and the Lee County Board of Education on Monday included plenty of compromise — even if nothing was officially accomplished or agreed upon.

The county's proposed budget would eliminate $500,000 in funding the schools had been using primarily to hire teaching assistants. The school board was not pleased, and since then, both Gov. Pat McCrory and the Senate have proposed budgets that would cut more teaching assistants. The Senate's proposal would also cut teachers, including 42 in Lee County, Supt. Jeff Moss said. In March, before either of those budgets were submitted, the the school board requested an extra $3.28 million from the county — most earmarked for teaching assistants and curriculum coaches, another position that has been cut recently.

At the time, board members said they didn't anticipate getting that funding. Several school board members even had some harsh words for the county commissioners, who have taken their own swipes at the schools and school board.

But fast forward to Monday's meeting, and Moss said the district would take a second look at some provisions in the controversial Evergreen Audit. Commissioners Jim Womack and Amy Dalrymple — a Republican and a Democrat — said they would work on a resolution to send to the General Assembly asking for more teaching assistant funding, and Chairman Charlie Parks offered to personally go to local judges and try to secure more money for the schools from fines and forfeitures the judges collect in court.

In the 2004 fiscal year, the schools received $640,200 from the courts, according to a chart Moss provided. This year, they received $155,524. According to the N.C. School Board Association, the state constitution requires courts to give "the clear proceeds of all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected" to public schools, but the courts don't always comply. No one at the meeting had an answer as to why the funding had decreased so drastically.

"I don't mind going to the head judge if I need to," Parks told the schools delegation.

Moss said the district could grow by as many as 100 students next year, mostly at the kindergarten level. Dalrymple said that statistic, combined with legislative proposals to lift class size caps, makes an even greater case to fund teaching assistants.

"I was a teaching assistant in kindergarten with 33 students way back in the day at Warren Williams [Alternative Elementary School]," she said. "And sometimes, we almost needed two assistants."

Womack agreed that it could be bad for the schools to lack teaching assistants in the early grades, which he said is the time when assistants are needed the most

"We are already operating short on teaching assistants in Lee County," he said. "And with the other shoe falling, do we have any left?"

Moss said 36 assistants will be lost next year for sure, but the schools might be able to fund 37 in kindergarten and 39 in first grade if all goes well. Plus, he said, most teaching assistants double as drivers for the district's 107 buses, and it might be hard to hire people solely as bus drivers given the odd hours and low pay. Unless the House passes a favorable budget that becomes law, Moss said, the county could be the last hope for the schools to hire teaching assistants.

Womack asked about finding other ways to save. He mentioned the Evergreen Audit's suggestion of laying off custodians and contracting those services, which school officials had previously opposed. He also said private school teachers often clean their own rooms and take turns cleaning the hallways, and the school district could always consider laying off all its janitors and following the private school model.

"As harsh as it may sound, it's not as important to take care of the custodial workers as it is to educate the child," Womack said.

Dalrymple and school board member Tamara Brogan warned that teachers might quit en masse if presented with custodial duties in addition to the loss of teaching assistants, not to mention no pay raises and more and more mandated testing and paperwork.

"You make a good point about teachers being overloaded," Womack said in response. "I would offer to you, one of the things you're trying to do is make up a $6 million shortfall. When you're not willing to offer up custodial work, it makes us take some pause. ... It doesn't sound as significant. It sounds like, 'I'm not going to do that because I'm not desperate enough.'"

Moss said a gradual transition could be a reasonable compromise. He also added that the schools might raise meal fees in the future, and that secretaries and other administrative workers have already had their hours trimmed to about 85 percent of full time in order to save some money. Between federal and state cuts, the district is anticipating anywhere from $5.5 million to $7.1 million less next year.

The boards also spoke about switching student resource officers over to the control of the Lee County Sheriff's Office. Technically the move — proposed by Rep. Mike Stone despite the objections of school officials — isn't official until it's ratified by both the House and the Senate, but both local boards were operating under the assumption the bill will pass. Moss said he has seen instances in which Sheriff-employed SROs refused to do something a principal had asked, and he also said he was worried that since the Sheriff has the duty of protecting all of Lee County, SROs could get called away from campus.

Moss said Sheriff Tracy Carter seems like he wouldn't allow those situations but is worried that future sheriffs might. The commissioners suggested they write up a contract with the sheriff each year ensuring situations like those don't happen, adding that because they're giving that department more money this year, they hope to have even more guards at schools than are there now.