Polk County Schools Supt.: N.C. budget crisis is real

Published 3:16 pm Monday, June 22, 2009

Supt. Miller says schools will have to cover about $1 billion of the shortfall. He notes that sounds like a huge sum of money, but it may be even larger than people think.

He says some people have suggested the state simply do away with testing or cut some state administrative costs to come up with the savings. Surely, in a state with 115 school districts, such cuts would produce enough savings, right? Unfortunately, Miller says, that&squo;s not enough to even get close.

In fact, cutting out testing, for instance, would save only $16.5 million. Even after also eliminating new testbook purchases and classroom materials and supplies, the state would still be about $786 million short of its $1 billion goal.

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Eliminate all administrative costs for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the 115 Local Education Agencies (school districts), and principals and assistant principals, and the state still would be $350 million shy of its goal.

Supt. Miller says the state could choose instead to reach the $1 billion mark by cutting pay for every public school employee by 6.8 percent or eliminating 20,000 classroom teachers.

Miller says if personnel are affected, he much prefers to see a pay cut rather than a loss of teachers in the classrooms.

Polk County Schools has already said it expects to have fewer teachers and support personnel when school opens this August. Miller has estimated that the school district may have to get by with 10 fewer positions, but will try to minimize the impact on staff and students. He says the school district is not planning to replace retiring teachers this year, and has eliminated some support positions in the central office and maintenance departments.

&dquo;What we try to do is limit how these cuts impact students and programs they participate in. However, cuts of this magnitude make that difficult to accomplish,&dquo; said Miller recently in a letter to school employees (see page 10).

Early in the budget season state leaders proposed relatively minimal reductions in school funding, but the cuts have grown as they see just how much tax revenue has slid. Recently, legislators have proposed increasing the average class size in the state by two students to reduce the number of teachers.

N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue has begun travelling the state in an effort to build support for schools. She says the General Assembly must &dquo;act boldly to protect the classroom&dquo; and avoid cuts to education that would mean &dquo;cutting short our economic future.&dquo;

Although state leaders are getting a clearer picture of the economic situation and moving closer to an approved budget, Supt. Miller says it may still be a month or more before school districts know exactly what to expect from the state.

That makes this budget season even more frustrating, says Miller, and it makes planning for a fiscal year that begins in less than two weeks even more challenging.

&dquo;There&squo;s still a lot of water to go under the bridge,&dquo; said Miller at the Polk County Board of Education meeting this month. &dquo;We&squo;re a long way from anything that is reality, but we do know there are going to be significant cuts to Polk County Schools.&dquo;

Geoff Tennant, chairman of the Polk County school board, says school employees are anxious, waiting to see if they will be affected. He says the uncertainty only makes the situation worse.

&dquo;It&squo;s causing a lot of angst. &dquo;People are worrying. There&squo;s a lack of clarity, but the reality is education is going to suffer,&dquo; says Tennant. &dquo;Cutting $1 billion from a $4.5 billion deficit, it&squo;s not fun.

&dquo;But our job is to continue to do what we&squo;ve always done, which is to do the best we can for the kids and that&squo;s going to be a real challenge.&dquo;&bsp;Editor&squo;s note: Following is a recent letter from Polk County Schools Supt. Bill Miller to school employees in the county regarding the state&squo;s budget crisis.

The economic downturn in North Carolina continues to create an enormous revenue shortfall for our state. The most recent information from the governor&squo;s office and legislature shows our state budget for next year short 4.6 billion dollars. (That is B as in billion). This means that state leaders have to look at either increase state revenue or cutting 4.6 billion from the state budget. The education share of that reduction is $1 billion. (I have attached a document with some examples of how large a number $1 billion is with regards to education reductions.) Discussions continue between the House, Senate and governor but one thing is clear, our state has not faced a situation like this since the Great Depression. Lawmakers continue to work on how these massive cuts will be distributed across public education. Obviously, a large number of opinions exist about how to accomplish this.

State budget cuts are forcing us to make some difficult decisions due to less dollars and positions. The latest House proposal would require:

Larger class sizes

Fewer counselors

Fewer teacher assistants

Loss of afterschool programs

Loss of funding for at-risk students

Elimination of free college courses for our high school students

Reduction in funds for pre-school

A 7.5 percent cut to transportation resulting in even longer bus routes

The list goes on and on.

Locally, we have very little control over the state budget. What we try to do is limit how these cuts impact students and programs they participate in. However, cuts of this magnitude make that difficult to accomplish. I am concerned about so many of the areas to be cut that I do not know where to begin. I will give one example; based on a proposed House of Representative&squo;s plan to increase the class size in North Carolina schools by two students, the number allocated to Polk County Schools would be reduced by 10 teachers.

With this large of a shortfall, I know education will have to take cuts. However, I do wonder if our legislators should consider some type of additional revenue to reduce the amount of cuts we are taking. It is one of those times in our state history that we really need to stand up for our students and schools. I hope you will consider contacting our legislators and ask them to support schools as much as possible. I would ask that you be extremely respectful for two reasons; we are fortunate in Western North Carolina to have legislators who support public schools and second they have to make very difficult decisions where no good answers exist.

If you look around our community we all have friends, neighbors and businesses that have been impacted by our states and nations economic problems. We all need to be thankful to have a job in their environment.

A frustrating thing for everyone is lack of information concerning the final state budget and how it will affect Polk County Schools. We have begun to make some cuts and adjustments given the information that we have and the inevitability of cuts to Polk County Schools. It is my understanding that we will not have a state budget until mid July or early August. I can tell you this is a very difficult thing for us as administrators and for me personally but I assure you we will do all we can to protect the opportunities we provide for our students.

North Carolina faces a large revenue shortfall, the sixth highest unemployment rate in the nation and growing needs in education and health and human services (the two largest areas in the state&squo;s budget). With this backdrop, budget decisions are very difficult. Without new taxes, existing programs will need to be trimmed to align with the amount of money available to spend. Even with new revenue sources, it is highly unlikely that they would bring in enough money to fill the budget shortfall. We are facing a very tough budget year. Without finding additional revenue, it will be impossible to make decisions that will not negatively affect some key services.