State budget uncertainty has school board scrambling for options

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The state still doesn’t have a budget, and that means the New Hanover County school board is still guessing as to what North Carolina lawmakers will fund — and what they won’t. The board met Tuesday to discuss contingency plans over uncertainties such as the status of teacher assistants and driver education.

Questions to be considered include whether the school system could or should pay for teacher assistants should the state make deep cuts, as one of the two chambers has recommended. The Senate budget would slash funding for teacher assistants, resulting in some 8,500 cuts over two years, but would add enough lower-grade teachers to reduce class sizes by a few students per teacher.

The Senate also included no funding for driver education and early plans called for a shift of responsibility to the community colleges, with students responsible for the full cost of $300 to $400 apiece. In making that change, senators also would eliminate the requirement that students under 18 be required to take driver ed to get a license.

The two chambers approved a continuing resolution that keeps most teacher assistant funding in place pending a resolution, so it is likely positions won’t be cut this year, New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Tim Markley said. (The Senate has proposed a 52 percent budget cut over two years.) But driver education funding is not included in that resolution.

For that reason, driver ed programs for the fall would be on hold pending a budget resolution or the school board picking up the cost.

The continuing resolution also includes funding to pay beginning teachers $35,000 a year, $2,000 more than the current minimum. However, because New Hanover County also hires locally paid teachers, the school system would absorb some additional cost.

Markley and chief financial officer Mary Hazel Small came up with a set of alternatives that could fund high-priority programs should the “worst case” scenario materialize. Using some money from fund balance, existing budget savings and local dollars approved by the county commissioners, the schools could save driver education, fill new positions the board has approved, pay bonuses to non-certified staff and handle other costs.

Small said she has heard it may be October before the House and Senate negotiators emerge with a final budget plan.

Board Chairman Don Hayes said regardless of the other concerns, teacher assistants should have the highest priority. But he’s not sure driver education should be on the list of must-haves. He said students who don’t take driver ed through the schools can seek the service from a private driving school.

“I don’t want to see us pay for that and then cut teacher assistants,” he said.

Some board members wanted to know whether they could wait until the state takes action to decide, but that could cause problems should negotiations persist after school starts in August, Small said.

Small and Markley told the board that because nothing is certain yet, the board could choose to set aside a certain amount of reserved money in case the state does not pay for some programs or positions. And if the state does come through, the money could be returned to the fund balance or put toward other unfunded programs.

The superintendent will ask the board to vote Aug. 4 on a budget resolution. Amendments can be made later if necessary, Markley said.

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