08/01/07 — Budget provides $11.5 billion for education

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Budget provides $11.5 billion for education

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on August 1, 2007 1:46 PM

Of the $20.7 billion budget approved by the General Assembly Monday and signed by Gov. Mike Easley Tuesday, nearly 55 percent -- $11.5 billion -- is going to education from pre-kindergarten through college.

"I think overall we have a right good budget. You don't ever feel like you have enough money for everything you want to do, but I think we hit all the key areas, especially in education. I think we did a good job funding our schools," Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, said.

For students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12th, that money is being funneled into programs such as More at Four, Learn and Earn and other drop-out prevention and literacy initiatives. At-risk students and students in low-wealth schools also will continue to see additional funding.

Teachers are benefiting this year, as well, with a 5 percent pay increase and a starting base salary for all beginning teachers of $30,000.

"The governor made a commitment a couple of years ago that he was going to try to bring teacher salaries up to the national average by increasing them 5 percent a year. It's a moving target, but I think we're keeping that pledge," Bell said.

Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, countered, however, that not all teachers will benefit from that 5 percent raise.

"Really we haven't given every teacher a 5 percent pay raise. We've given an average 5 percent pay raise," he said. "I don't know why, but the pay scale is skewered toward more inexperienced teachers. They get a larger pay raise. Someone who's been there 28 years may end up with a 1 percent pay raise."

He was pleased, though, to see a base salary increase for teacher assistants. It was an initiative he's helped push since the beginning of the legislative session.

"Some of them will be getting well-deserved raises," he said. "I'm very proud we were able to get that in the budget."

Those teacher assistants and other state employees also will get a 4 percent pay increase, while state retirees are scheduled to receive a 2.2 percent cost-of-living increase.

Other programs funded this year include more tuition assistance for part-time students attending private colleges and a counselor position for each of the four counties with major military bases -- Wayne with Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Craven with Cherry Point Marine Air Station, Onslow with Camp Lejeune and Cumberland with Fort Bragg -- to help those students with deployed parents.

However, Pate cautioned, not everything about the education funding is as rosy as it looks.

He explained that while the state purports to be maintaining a student-teacher ratio of 18:1 in kindergarten through third-grade classes, it's not always the case.

"We have not reduced class size," Pate said. "What we've done is allocate money that would reduce class size, but we don't put any strings on it."

Additionally, Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston, said he was bothered by the lack of funding for vocational programs.

"I'm all for spending the money we need to educate our children," he said. "But our strategic plan needs to be overhauled. We've thrown a lot of money at education in the last 10 days and we don't have a lot to show for it.

"We need to make sure that the children are the customers and what the customer needs, we do."

And both felt enough wasn't done for the community colleges.

"Unfortunately, I think they came in third in this thing as far as funding (behind universities and public schools)," he said. "We probably should have tried to do a little more because they're very important for job training and very much a key to getting new industries."

Even Bell said he wished they could have done more to help with school construction funding.

Still, Pate said, even though he did not vote for the budget because of its continuation of the temporary sales tax and 9.5 percent increase in spending over last year, he does think it included some good things for education.

"Education is the No. 1 thing people have in their minds. Education is important," he said.

However, local officials said, it will still be several weeks before they know what exactly the impact of this year's budget will be on Wayne County Schools.

"Until it's actually signed into law, you hate to wager a guess," said Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for financial services. "Once the governor signs it into law, it has to go to DPI (Department of Public Instruction) to work out the formula for the allotments, and then it filters down to the local educational units."

Whatever the final numbers, though, the impact of the legislature's decisions will be significant, county school board member Rick Pridgen said, as the state supports approximately 83 percent of the county's education budget.

Staff Writer Phyllis Moore contributed to this report.