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2011 April 4 - 12:00 am

NC Education Budget Options Bring Sharp Responses

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Republican lawmakers who resolved to eliminate $1.3 billion in temporary taxes are now considering some sober options to reduce education spending in next year’s state budget.

A joint House-Senate education budget subcommittee is looking at what it might take to cut $760 million more out of the $11.2 billion dedicated to education in Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue’s budget proposal.

Among the options are cutting state spending for several thousand teacher positions or eliminating state dollars for some or all teacher assistant positions. There’s talk of raising community college tuition by 10 percent.

All these ideas combined could save hundreds of millions of dollars. No decisions have yet been made about whether some or any of these options will be proposed formally when the first edition of the state’s spending plan is introduced in mid-April in the House.

“What that gives us is a discussion point. You’ve got to have a beginning place to start a discussion and it’s triggering a lot of thought,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Senate education budget writer. On their own, he said, “some of them are staggering. They’re very devastating.”

Republicans are considering deeper cuts needed to close a $2.4 billion budget gap because they resolved not to extend some sales and income tax increases scheduled to expire this year. That means there will be less available revenue for the fiscal year starting July 1. But they say voters elected them with a mandate to spend less and spend smartly.

The ideas discussed by the subcommittee come in part from state agencies that were asked by Perdue last fall to predict what they would have to cut if they lost either 5 or 10 percent from their budgets.

In education, the choices include raising the student-teacher ratio by two students in all grades or increasing class sizes in grades K-9. The state allocates teacher money based on ratios that range from one teacher from 18 students to almost 27, depending on the grade. The direst scenario there would eliminate $333 million in state funding for 6,062 positions.

Democrats and the state’s leading teacher lobbying group say these and other options are proof that additional revenues are needed, such as the temporary taxes. Perdue’s budget retains $800 million next year by keeping most of a penny increase in the sales tax that ends June 30.

“There’s got to be a combination of revenue and cuts to really not do significant damage to the state,” said Democratic Rep. Rick Glazier. “But if we’re only going to be looking at cuts, that no matter which way you turn, there’s going to be huge damage to the education system.”

Public school personnel didn’t avoid cuts the past two years even with the temporary taxes in place. The budget directed all local school districts to find $225 million in combined cuts during the 2009-10 school year and $305 million this year.

The local cuts contributed largely to school districts eliminating 5,400 instructional and support positions during the first year, while another 9,650 jobs lost this school year originated from state and local cuts, according to the North Carolina Association of Educators, citing data from the Department of Public Instruction.

The N.C. Association of Educators has already sounded the alarm to its members about next year’s options and has already urged members to contact their legislators to counter any talk about layoffs of the scale being discussed.

“When we see 23,000 educators on the chopping block and then we compare it to (the Republican) campaign promise to protect the classroom, this has got the public and our educators really upset,” association lobbyist Brian Lewis said.

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