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Wednesday, 16 June 2010 14:15

Schools watch, wait and plan as Raleigh budget debate plays out

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While university leaders are nervously hoping state lawmakers will pass a budget that looks something like the Senate version, many K-12 school officials are openly rooting for the House version.

Seeing public schools and colleges compete for the same budget dollars is not unusual, especially during this recession.

John Bardo, chancellor for Western Carolina University, said the budget would ideally not pit educational systems against each other.

“We cannot get good students in our institutions if the K-12 sector or the community colleges aren’t doing their jobs,” said Bardo, adding that lawmakers should consider the various entities as one system that builds competitiveness for North Carolina.

Bill Nolte, associate superintendent for Haywood County, added that he understands the dilemma leaders across the board face during this recession.

“We know it’s not the mayor’s fault or the state superintendent’s fault. It’s just the state of the world economy right now,” said Nolte.

According to Nolte, the governor’s budget is the least desirable for K-12 schools. To prepare for the worst, that’s the version Haywood County schools is working with in crafting its budget.

Last year, Haywood County’s school system lost 44.5 positions. This year, Nolte estimates Haywood will lose around a dozen more.

“Out of 1,200 plus, it’s a lot, but it could be a lot worse,” Nolte said, citing the total number of school employees. About 10 of the 12 positions would be absorbed through retirement and resignations, avoiding actual layoffs but impacting staff levels nonetheless.

Other budget cuts will likely limit textbook purchases, replacement of school buses and staff training.

While state lawmakers make mandatory cuts for all public schools, they also require individual school systems to decide where to make additional cuts. Under the governor’s budget, Haywood has to come up with $2.3 million in additional cuts, compared to $1.4 million under the House budget.

Gwen Edwards, finance officer for Jackson County Schools, said the K-12 school system will probably have to make $750,000 of its own discretionary cuts above and beyond what state lawmakers slash.

Federal stimulus money may make up the difference this year, but that money, which has eased the pain of state cuts for two years now, will dry up come the 2011-12 school year.

“We’re anticipating that that’s where a lot of hurting is going to be,” said Edwards.

Jan Letendre, finance officer for Swain County Schools, said many have likened the cutoff in federal stimulus money to a “funding cliff.” What’s also worrying for Letendre, though, are state cuts in funding for custodians, school secretaries and substitute teachers.

Letendre pegs the discretionary cuts for Swain’s school system at about $575,000 this year.

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