Legislators look to shorten school year to fix state budget

First Posted: 5/25/2009

School personnel across the state last week received information from the state superintendents office stating that five days of instructional time would be removed from North Carolina school calendars in an effort to reduce the states budget deficit.
While the bill was still in an appropriations committee in the General Assembly at the end of last week, Rep. Sarah Stevens is against reducing teachers salaries if the state can avoid it. She said the bill still has to make it out of that committee, pass in the House and the Senate then have the governor sign off on it. She said a decision in the matter is still up in the air.
We are looking at various alternatives in order to balance the budget, she said in a phone interview last Thursday.
Stevens said Bill Harrison, who was appointed by Gov. Bev Purdue as head of the education department, has come up with some physical research to back cutting five days from the school year to help balance the states budget. Stevens is against the idea of taking away instructional days before exploring other possibilities first.
I dont understand why you would take teaching days before you would take teacher workdays. I dont fully understand, Stevens said.
The representative said that balancing the state budget is more difficult than she thought. She said she spent much of her time last week working on budget cuts in the Department of Corrections.
I do know that budget is much worse than any of us really knew. My focus all week has been in justice and public safety. Weve cut almost every program we can find in the department of corrections. We closed about seven or eight prisons and are still $64 million short. Its not a pretty picture, Stevens said last week.
She said she is still getting up to speed on the information that was sent out to educators and administrators across the state.
I cant explain it in great detail because I am seeing the same memo that the teachers got from Harrison because I was not in that committee. Harrison is saying that it will happen next year and the year after, Stevens said.
Stevens said if school days were used to balance the budget, the days would be like furlough days and teachers would get the days off, but they would also be unpaid.
Its not a done deal. We are just trying to come up with a budget we can live with, and people are saying, Why arent you raising taxes? For one, to raise taxes right now would run away a lot of businesses. And, two, people cant afford more taxes right now. We cant keep affording to tax and tax and tax. Weve got to take some cuts and some heavy cuts. Weve been spending more than we have for a long time. So this is one of those that is a very difficult situation, Stevens said.
Mount Airy City Schools Superintendent Dr. Darrin Hartness said he received information Thursday from the state superintendents office that referenced the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and its initial budget proposal. He said items outlined will be voted on in the House and will be on the table for discussion among the House and Senate budget conferees before a final budget is adopted and presented to the governor. He said while none of the decisions are official, it gives him a picture of what is to come.
We hope that the retirements, resignations and other budget cuts we have already planned for will cover most of these reductions. We are now in the process of determining where our adjustments stack up compared to what may be coming. If all of this is passed, we have our work cut out for us.
Hartness said he hopes legislators first consider making cuts in the community college system before they take away from K-12 classrooms, which he said is the foundation for a students learning.
I am very disappointed with these proposals that cut the school year, increase class size, furlough our employees and affect our ability to provide a quality education. We have taken several cuts already this school year and were asked to make reductions that did not impact the classroom. These cuts, a freeze on state spending, and the 11-percent proposed reduction out of Raleigh last week will have a significant negative impact on our classrooms, he said.
I know that K-12 education must make reductions, but the proposed cuts currently in the legislature reduce budgets in K-12 schools more than the community colleges and universities. K-12 is the foundation to educating our future. I hope the legislature will focus on other areas to reduce rather than jeopardizing the education of children of North Carolina. The dollars they may save today will have lasting effects that we will never be able to measure, Hartness said.
In light of the recent news, Hartness said he believes in time the situation will improve.
I have asked our staff to stay tuned, stay focused, keep taking good care of our students each day and we will get through this economic crisis together, Hartness said.
Surry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Ashley Hinson said he was a little hesitant to speak out against the legislation until he knows more about it.
Im a little reluctant to criticize, because I dont know enough about what the folks, the governor and everybody else has to work with. I dont know what their options are, he said.
I will say that instructional time is precious. When you take any amount of instructional time away, it will be felt. We have 180 days. I dont think there is anything magic about 180 days. Its been that way for probably too long. Instead of taking away time, we need to be adding time. If thats what it turns out to be, we will do the very best we can to minimize the loss of instructional time and its effect, he said. I think anytime you affect somebodys pay, its at the very least disappointing. Sometimes, the worse case scenario is that it is devastating.
Hinson went on to speak about one of the cuts made in this years budget by the state. According to the cut, all state employees, including teachers, received a .5 percent cut in their annual salary. For teachers, that cut had to come from their May paycheck as they are 10-month employees. In exchange for the salary cut, they were given 10 hours of furlough time to be taken before Dec. 31. However, personnel who have direct contact with students cannot take that time on a day when students are present.
Five days is not .5 percent like we had this year. We had some negative reaction this year. So there is no doubt that if you take five days pay away that people are going to be anywhere on that spectrum between disappointed to devastated. It will hurt a lot of people.
Hinson said if he could speak directly to legislators, he would tell them to consider their accountability to the students and teachers.
Ill tell them that I would be just like any of their constituents in any of their districts and that is that I am a lot of things. I am a taxpayer. I am the father of a teacher, and Im an educator. We send them to Raleigh to do the best they can for every part of their constituency, for taxpayers, for school children, educators. We will hold them accountable to do the very best they can to minimize the effect of children, teachers, administrators, parents, and after its all said and done, we will look at it and see if we believe they did the best that they can. They will be held accountable, Hinson said.
Contact Mondee Tilley at [email protected] or at 719-1930.

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