School starts, but state funding still uncertain

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Buses rolled. Children picked out their favorite new outfit. Students sought out classmates they haven’t seen since June. Teachers greeted a new school year.

But while the bell rang Monday, Aug. 24 and classes began, New Hanover County school administrators remain a bit unsettled because they don’t yet know how much money they will have to spend on specific programs.

State lawmakers still haven’t agreed on a final budget, which by law was supposed to be in place July 1. Although the House and Senate have settled on a total amount of $21.74 billion, the two chambers are still negotiating which state-funded programs will get money and which will be cut.

Schools opened amid uncertainty. Some districts have laid off teacher assistants, whose jobs are among the many items yet to be determined by the general assembly. The Senate wanted to cut 5,000 teacher assistant positions in exchange for reducing class sizes in the lower grades; the House budget kept funding for the positions intact.

New Hanover County has not taken such a drastic step. Schools Superintendent Tim Markley said the word out of Raleigh is money for teacher assistants will survive this year, albeit at a slightly lower level. But as lawmakers negotiate, there has been talk that the jobs may be cut in future years.

Locally, several programs are on hold pending a final budget.

The school board chose not to fill newly created positions that were not directly related to classroom learning. Teacher raises are on hold except for beginning teachers, who will be paid $35,000 under the continuing resolution the General Assembly passed while the final budget is negotiated.

“What I’m hearing is the pay raises for teachers are probably going to be it,” Markley said.

The figure the House and Senate agreed on came at the expense of raises for state employees other than beginning teachers, he said. Teachers received an average pay increase of 7 percent last year, although the percentage varied based on experience. The most experienced teachers received a pay increase of less than 1 percent.

Another casualty of the prolonged budget negotiations: driver education. The school system spent its reserves to fund summer driver’s ed programs. There is currently no money available for new classes.

School officials went to Raleigh a couple of weeks ago and were told there will be some funding, but without specifics Markley said the program remains in limbo.

“Driver education is on hold till the state decides how to fund it,” he said. “We will not start a new class until the budget comes out.”

The school system will have more than 26,000 students during the 2015-16 fiscal year, including those in year-round schools, which started classes in July. Enrollment at Wrightsville Beach School was 364 as of Friday, Principal Jackson Norvell said. The official count will come on the 10th day, when teacher and student assignments are more firm.

Norvell said his biggest budget-related concern is what may happen regarding teacher assistants.

“I think the central office has done a fantastic job of keeping building-level leaders — principals — in the loop so we can have a Plan A and B,” he said.

New Hanover County boasts well-qualified — and sometimes overqualified — teacher assistants, he said. Many are certified teachers.

“If it is done right, you can’t tell the difference between the teacher and teacher assistant” in the classroom, Norvell said.

Losing them would be difficult for Wrightsville Beach School, and potentially more so for high-poverty schools where parents often cannot volunteer during the day. But Norvell said his elementary school is blessed with strong parental support — so much so that his Plan B may involve encouraging parents to become certified as volunteers. Doing so would allow them to work alone with students, he said.

email tricia@luminanews.com

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