Atkinson, others worry about state budget cuts

Jul. 23, 2013 @ 05:03 PM

Certain components of the proposed state budget have teachers concerned. 

The $20.6 billion budget is scheduled for a vote this week. Among other provisions, the budget phases out teacher assistants; eliminates additional pay for teachers with a master’s degree; eliminates teacher career status, often called tenure; and allows money for vouchers, or opportunity scholarships, to send children to private schools using taxpayer money. 

State Superintendent June Atkinson released a statement that she was “truly worried” about students for the first time in her 30-year career.

“With this budget, North Carolina has moved away from its commitment to quality public schools,” Atkinson said in a statement. “I am disappointed for the children in our state who will have fewer educators and resources in their schools as a result of the General Assembly’s budget.”

She expressed concern about the loss of teacher assistants, a lack of resources for textbooks and other educational supplies, the end of master’s pay and “the lack of progress” on teacher salary. 

Teachers already receiving master’s degree pay will continue to receive the bonus. Starting in 2018, teachers will be offered contracts instead of the current status system. 

Atkinson was worried about the budget’s impact on teacher recruitment.

“North Carolina teacher pay is dismal compared to the nation and to all of our bordering states. Starting teachers can earn $10,000 more per year in some of our neighbor states, while a teacher with six years of experience will make the same as a first-year teacher here in North Carolina. Why should these teachers stay in our state?” She wrote in a statement. “Add to that the end of pay increases for master’s degrees beginning in 2014-15, and there is even less incentive to work in North Carolina’s public school classrooms. We must quit talking about the goal of bringing our teacher pay to the best in the nation and start putting action behind those words.”

Atkinson found a bright spot in the budget with the end of the discretionary reduction. Under this strategy, school systems had to return a certain amount of money to the state every year.

Rep. Dean Arp, R-69, said that with the end of the discretionary cut and increased flexibility for school systems, it is basically a flat budget.

When asked about the teacher assistants, Arp said that it looks like that fund has been drastically cut and he initially thought that, but due to flexibility and other cuts, the school system has increased flexibility to fund teacher assistants. Arp gave the example of the district using money for a teacher position and creating two teacher assistant positions.

The governor’s budget increased money for teachers, Arp said, and the local systems are able to make that final determination.

Arp shared Atkinson’s concern about the master’s degree pay.

“I’m extremely concerned and not happy with the fact that we are no longer continuing the masters program for those not already in the program,” Arp said. “I think there was a lot of discussion regarding the effectiveness in the classroom and I certainly wish we could have continued those things.”  

Arp said he has had a lot of discussions with Union County Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ellis and Chief Financial Officer Dan Karpinski about the budget. 

In addition, Arp said there is money being held back for a Year Two raise for state employees, including teachers. The raise would go into effect during Year Two of the biannual budget, he said. 

“I wish that was appropriated for the budget now,” Arp said. “The problem that we have is that the budget writers...are very, very concerned about the increase in Medicaid costs to the state.” 

Kim Hargett, president of the Union County Association of Educators and district director for the North Carolina Association of Educators, said they are hopeful that Arp, along with Representatives Mark Brody and Craig Horn will vote against the budget. 

“We are hopeful that our three house representatives are going to vote ‘no’ on the budget,” Hargett said. “Actions speak louder and every politician says that they support public education and this is a real opportunity to take a stand.”

“It will be a tough ‘no’ vote for all three of our house representatives, however, we know how much the citizens of Union Count support their public schools,” Hargett said. 

Hargett said their votes will be “an indicator of where their allegiance lies.” 

While she and other members of the NCAE are concerned about many aspects, she said that losing teacher assistants would hurt the most and be felt as soon as school starts. 

“The other issues are really just laying the groundwork for teaching in a public school to be an internship as opposed to being a profession,” Hargett said. “People will go into teaching knowing that they’re only going to do it for three to five years. They will know that it’s not a career.”

Hargett said the budget begins phasing out the teaching fellows program and puts more money into the Teach for America program, where teachers commit to teach for two years. 

Hargett said that morale among teachers is low. She said it was the hardest year she has gone through in 25 years with regard to teachers feeling valued. 

She noted that the school district does a great job, but it is the pressure coming from Raleigh. 

“I think even more than that, the stress level and not being able to see a pathway of getting better...and I think that’s where the angst was coming from,” Hargett said. 

She said that while they used to see a light at the end of tunnel about the recession ending and things getting better, there has not been that sense in a while. 

“It is nothing but bad news and I think that has been what is so discouraging to people,” Hargett said. 

Rep. Craig Horn could not be reached before press time.