7/24/13 Proposed cuts concern school leaders

Proposed cuts concern school leaders
Board chairman: ‘I don’t know what the Legislature is thinking’
By Isaac Groves The Times-News 7/24/13  
Reprinted with permission. 

   Leaders in the Alamance-Burlington School System are not welcoming cuts to education working their way through the General Assembly this week — not only because they take money from local schools, but also because they take away local control.

   “This year they’re telling us what to cut and how to cut it,” said school board member Jackie Cole.

   Rather than taking back money from the school system, and allowing the school board to cut where it chooses, the Legislature is cutting line items in its budget. For example, funding for teacher assistants in second and third grades would be cut by 21 percent in the budget proposal.

   “I think a lot of people think teacher assistants just go in there and push papers around,” Cole said. “The TAs I know, under a teacher’s supervision, are teaching.”

   The $11.5 billion portion of the proposed state budget set aside for public schools, community colleges and the University of North Carolina system cuts education spending by nearly $260 million this year and another $222 million next year.

   “It’s bigger than a year of budget cuts,” said Superintendent Lillie Cox. “It’s an all-out attack on education.”

   Cox is concerned about the long-term impact of the General Assembly’s action. “North Carolina public schools have been cut for the past five years. It will not be easy to recover from these cuts,” Cox said. Locally, these cuts will mean losing many of the teacher assistants who help elementary school teachers break classes into smaller groups and give students more individual attention.

   “Teacher assistants cut the class size in half,” said Tony Rose, chairman of the school board. “I don’t know what the Legislature is thinking.”

   The plan unveiled late Sunday and headed toward expected approval in the General Assembly this week would allow armed volunteers into public schools as safety officers, increase the number of teachers who come to the classroom with college degrees but little training in education techniques, and allow low-income students to take $4,200 a year in taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition.

   Cox said she will bring a revised budget to the school board’s next work session Aug. 12. Rose said Cox had seen more cuts coming, and had already drawn up a very conservative budget.

   While Rose is not pleased with the Legislature’s proposal, he did not anticipate having to radically change the school system’s budget. The system had already let many teacher assistants know it would not renew their temporary work contracts.

   Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said the state spending plan was carefully crafted to invest in education and other high priorities while remaining fiscally responsible. Republicans this year have overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly and occupy the governor’s office for the first time since the 1870s.

   Rose, a self-described conservative and Republican on the nonpartisan board, said he understands the Legislature is dealing with a difficult fiscal situation, but education is not the place to cut again. Rose said the local school system is already spending its money efficiently after years of budget cuts.

   “We’re at the point now where I don’t think efficiency is the issue. The issue is having less professional people working with children,” Rose said. “It’s not more efficient, it’s a different educational model — not a better one.”

   The budget law also says local school boards could make agreements, as early as December, with local sheriffs or police chiefs to provide the volunteers, who would have to have previous experience as either a law enforcement officer or a military police officer and receive training on the social and mental development of children. The officers could not be sued for their good-faith actions.

   Cox said she would get Sheriff Terry Johnson’s perspective on the proposal.

   “Local law enforcement are exceptionally supportive and provide excellent protection for our schools,” Cox said.

   Cox said she is writing a letter to send to members of the General Assembly to share her concerns. Rose and Cole said they have both been in regular contact with legislators, especially those representing Alamance County in Raleigh.

   “Our representatives went after them with the right mindset,” Rose said. “I think when they got to a higher level in Raleigh, I think it got lobbied and changed and not in the right way.”