As North Carolina school systems struggle with a third year of severe education budget cuts, administrators say parents' support is needed more than ever to minimize the impact on children. Superintendents across the state have cut millions from their budgets, which means students could face everything from longer bus rides to not as much extra help at school.
Speculation about education budget cuts across North Carolina was rampant this year, with worst-case scenarios calling for massive teacher layoffs.
When the N.C. legislature passed its budget in June, however, many school leaders breathed a sigh of relief that the cuts were less than anticipated. The state's largest school systems have been able to preserve many teacher and teacher assistant jobs, cutting elsewhere instead.
"Nobody is happy with a 6 percent cut in funding [in Wake County public schools], but there were a lot of rumors of 10 percent, and I would just say, 'Steady in the foxhole; let's wait,' " says Wake County Public School System Superintendent Anthony J. Tata.
The effects of the budget cuts will be felt differently across the state. In Wake County, for example, the system's central office is losing more than 40 positions so that the teacher-to-student ratio will remain the same. In Charlotte, many elementary schools will start earlier or later to save money on transportation, and several middle-schools' sports have been cut. In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, foreign-language classes in elementary schools will be cut, and high-school and middle-school class sizes will increase.
Impact in the classroom
While school systems focused on saving teachers' jobs, growing school systems likely will have to make room for hundreds or thousands of new students this fall.
In Wake County, more teachers will be hired in 2011-2012 to preserve class size as enrollment goes up, Tata says. The school system is also adding programs to make all of its schools as desirable as possible and reorganizing its central office.
"We have a $1.2 billion budget, and my priorities within that budget are to protect teachers and classrooms first," says Tata. "[That commitment] will minimize the impact of the budget on parents and students, which is the overarching goal."
The cuts include layoffs in Wake County's central office and the elimination of 70 janitorial positions. The system is also removing one clerical position from each school and cutting teacher assistants' and assistant principals' pay.
School officials in Guilford County originally anticipated $35.6 million in cuts, but after reviewing the state budget, the school board expects to cut $14.3 million. While the school system did not cut any full-time teaching jobs, leaders are anticipating the loss of 64 jobs, but will not require teachers to take salary reductions or furloughs, and will keep classroom sizes about the same.
"We have tried to reduce our impact to the classroom," says Sharon Ozment, the chief financial officer for Guilford County Schools.
Teachers in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system did not fare as well, with $22.2 million in cuts from the previous year. Officials were forced to eliminate 210 jobs, including 120 teachers. Fortunately, most of these cuts were obtained through attrition. Additional savings will come from employee pay reductions. For example, teaching assistants and primary reading teachers will have their work terms permanently reduced by seven days. Twelve-month employees who make between $30,000 and $75,000 a year will be required to take one-day furloughs, and employees earning more than $75,000 a year will be required to take two-day furloughs. Middle-school and high-school class sizes will also be larger for the 2011-2012 school year.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) restored hundreds of teacher positions originally removed for the 2011-2012 school year after the state cut $30 million less than anticipated, and Mecklenburg County awarded the schools an additional $26 million. That means teacher assistants and support positions, such as media specialists and school counselors, will be protected.
"We're incredibly thankful to the county for the additional support they gave us," says Eric Davis, CMS school board chairman. "That, combined with the state's cuts not being as bad as they originally forecasted, is helping us preserve about 1,000 positions."
CMS leaders also say that there is now enough money to hire more teachers, which could reduce high-school class sizes.
Cuts felt elsewhere
School systems still had to find a way to remove millions from their budgets. In Charlotte, the school board chopped about $50 million.
That means another year of no funding for middle-school sports, although the system recently found enough money from other sources to restore eight of the 13 sports. Schools have closed or been consolidated, and 45 minutes have been added to the elementary-school day to streamline school bus usage.
Like Wake County, CMS has reduced its maintenance staff.
"The grass will get longer, fewer people will be cleaning the schools, and the schools will be warmer in the hotter months and colder in the winter months because our thermostats will be adjusted to save money," Davis says.
Guilford County has maintained cuts to its central office and supplies budget, although school leaders say this may be the last year they can absorb such cuts without making significant changes. If 2012-2013 brings similar cuts, education leaders across the state say widespread teacher layoffs likely are unavoidable.
"The system is under so much strain, and for the students who need the additional support the most, it's going to be so difficult for our staff to provide that support so that they can continue to show academic progress at the rate [we'd like]," Davis says.
Less funding for pre-K
Education for the youngest — and often most needy — students has been the topic of intense discussion this year, and programs will see cuts and changes.
More at Four, a highly regarded pre-kindergarten program that focuses on helping underserved children get ready for school, has been cut 11.5 percent and was moved from the N.C. Department of Education to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services' Division of Child Development on July 1. Now, the program is known as N.C. Pre-Kindergarten.
School leaders say that budget cuts coupled with a legislative requirement that the program charge qualifying families a co-pay could cripple More at Four, which now serves about 40,000 children in North Carolina.
While some worry that N.C. Pre-Kindergarten will become subsidized child care rather than an educational program, others are more optimistic.
"The Division of Child Development has said they expect all of the quality components to remain in place," says Jean Goodman, the executive director at the Guilford County Partnership for Children, the local agency that administers early childhood-development funding. "Absolutely, we'll have a high-quality pre-K program. We don't know all of the details [yet], but parents should go ahead and register their children if they qualify." At press time, administrators still were figuring out how to allocate pre-kindergarten money, whether the number of slots would be reduced and how much the program would be subsidized.
"We're starting out in the hole, and we've been cut, and we don't know how many slots we'll have or where they will be," Goodman says.
Charlotte's Bright Beginnings program, a public-school preschool for at-risk children, will close its preschool centers because of budget cuts, Davis says. The program will not lose seats, but all Bright Beginnings classrooms will be moved into elementary schools.
"We're doing the best we can to try to put those classes into schools close to where they live, but depending on how that shakes out, some students might have to go to a school that's not as close to them as a center," Davis says.
Funding for The N.C. Governor's School
The North Carolina Governor's School, a decades-old summer program for high-achieving high-schoolers, is also in limbo.
The program has been cut from the state budget — some legislators say it had to go to protect teachers and classrooms — but the program could continue in 2012 if private donors come up with about $1 million.
The N.C. Governor's School was founded in 1963 and offers academic enrichment programs in everything from dance to science. The program was free until 2010 when students were required to pay a $500 tuition fee because of previous budget cuts. The six-week program, which costs about $2,100 per student, is held on the campuses of Salem College and Meredith College.
The Governor's School Alumni Association and The Governor's School Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the program, are raising money to keep the program going, even if it has to be scaled down. In mid-July, the foundation had raised about $20,000. The state Board of Education could discuss the future of Governor's School this month.
What parents can do
Parent participation is more important than ever as schools try to offer the same level of education with fewer resources. Here are some things you can do to help.
World language and advanced-placement classes in high schools have been some of the first to go, and many students have turned to online classes to fill the void. North Carolina Virtual School, which opened in mid-2007 and serves about 46,000 students annually, has had steady growth of between 35 percent and 50 percent in the last few years, said David Edwards, the chief communications and professional learning officer for NC Virtual Public School. Especially popular are the language classes, such as Latin, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.
"The parents have been very pleased with our instruction and our model," Edwards said. "The biggest feedback we get is their student has the opportunity to take an additional course that was not offered locally."
The virtual school, based in Raleigh, will expand its advanced-placement-level course sections and debut more classes that focus on science, math, technology and engineering in the fall.
However, budget cuts may even affect virtual classes. The state requires public schools to pay for their students to take the classes, which cost between around $300 per student. Some smaller school systems have said they can't pay the bill.
Help out at home
Teachers may be stretched thin with larger classes or less help from teacher assistants, and parents can help by making sure their child is doing his or her homework and keeping up with classroom assignments.
Take on little tasks
Teachers spend precious time on administrative work, such as changing out bulletin boards or hanging student artwork in the hallway. Regularly ask teachers if you can help them with these tasks, and you'll free up more time for them to spend in the classroom.
Keep teachers supplied
When teachers run short on classroom supplies, they may be too shy to ask parents to pitch in, says Mary McCray, the outgoing president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators and a retired elementary-school teacher. Ask teachers what they need and ask them to periodically email their supply lists to parents. Don't forget non-classroom teachers such as media specialists and PE teachers — they may need supplies as well.
Organize a work day
Most school systems are cutting back on custodial and maintenance services, and parents can help with everything from landscaping to trash pickup. A group of parents dedicating a Saturday morning to school grounds work can make a big difference.
Volunteer — and bring a friend
Schools have many opportunities to volunteer, and school principals or PTA leaders can help match your skills with volunteer jobs. Some schools already have specific needs, such as elementary schools in Union County that are losing media assistants, says Union County Public Schools Superintendent Ed Davis. Consider volunteering in high-needs schools, where help is needed the most.
If you know a retiree, Sunday School teacher or other community member who might have free time to volunteer, ask him or her, says McCray. Schools often have regular volunteer shifts, such as weekly tutoring.
Help find other funding
Many schools have formed committees to write small, targeted grants for money from corporations and foundations that can help with projects such as a school garden or playground equipment. Also check out www.donorschoose.org, where visitors can fund local teacher projects.
Participate in school fundraisers
Some community members are taking the lead in raising money for specific programs, such as saving middle-school sports in Charlotte. Visit http://savemiddleschoolsports.com to learn more.
Stay calm, stay informed
Keeping up with the news on educational budget cuts can foster understanding of the situation rather than the anger and frustration that many parents feel as they encounter schools and teachers struggling to make do with less.
"Be aware of the challenges that the teacher faces," Davis says. "Just a little bit of grace and support would go a long way toward helping our teachers serve more students."
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer based in Charlotte.
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