07/05/09 — Schools waiting for budget news

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Schools waiting for budget news

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 5, 2009 9:11 AM

Typically when July rolls around, the school district has teacher allotments and assignments in place.

Not this year.

It's hard to plan when there is still no final state budget, Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor said.

"Usually by now we have pretty much gotten things in place," he said. "By the time school starts, we make our minor adjustments, and we're ready to go."

The current economy and state's budget crisis are expected to have a big impact on education. And even though no official announcement came in time for the July 1 deadline, Taylor and his staff have been working on several scenarios.

"I have sent out the preliminary allotments, but they have been based on conjecture," he said Monday. "Until we know where the cuts are going to be, it's hard to finalize the allotments to the schools."

Initial recommendations reflected a class size increase of two students, Taylor said, with the understanding that was likely to change.

"The last thing that we have heard, and of course we don't know until the end, was that K-3 would stay the same but (grades) 4-12 class size would increase by two," he said. "This could change, but what they're looking at, we'll try to keep class size K-3 as it was this past year, but increasing class size for grades 4-12."

Changes could mean job cuts for teachers and teacher assistants.

"All we have done is the preliminary allotment based on 'what if,'" Taylor said. "Any impact that it would have on teachers being reassigned and moved, we haven't put faces with numbers yet. We don't know what that's going to be."

Taylor is hesitant to talk about personnel cuts, especially since nothing official has been handed down by the state.

"We want to be real when we actually give our the details, we want to be honest with people," he said.

In previous years, that move has been avoided through attrition -- openings created by end-of-year retirements going unfilled.

"It has been talked about eliminating third-grade assistants, but there's no question if third-grade assistants are eliminated it would obviously impact a number of positions and that's the sad part," he said. "We will absolutely look at attrition to offset any cuts that we have."

One potential problem is that might not be enough.

"I still have hope against hope that this will not come to be," Taylor said. "We really don't know until they finish the budget."

It's a "tough budget time," Taylor said, and officials are keeping a watchful eye on the outcome.

"We have been following on a daily basis the happenings in the General Assembly," he said. "They have been responsive communicating back with me and I appreciate our legislative delegation being responsive. But at this point it's sort of a wait-and-see game, nothing is final yet."

The superintendent and his staff don't have the luxury of being idle, however. They are on a tight schedule to have things in place by the start of a new school year.

"We need to be able to let principals know -- one teacher can throw off the whole schedule," he said. "We're on the edge of our seat so we can get the information out to our principals. ... I have told my staff, 'Once we get the final budget, we have got to move really fast.' Our principals are going to have to work very quickly once the budget is done."

A school district operates similarly to a household, the superintendent said -- living within the resources at hand. It's especially challenging, not knowing which categories might be cut, he added.

"Our objective certainly is to provide the best possible level of educational services to our children and at the same time try to protect jobs as much as we can within the budget that we have," he said. "I certainly appreciate our current expenses from the county commissioners not being cut from last year. We appreciate their keeping (their two-year commitment to fund the) mobile pre-K and elementary summer school."

With an eye to the future, Taylor is hard-pressed to speculate on possible areas that might be reduced.

"I think generically it's safe to say everything is on the table, depending on where the cuts fall," he said. "We certainly would like to maintain everything we have at the level that we have but we realistically understand if the budget is cut, we have got to go back and prioritize those programs that are absolutely necessary."

The added weight of state and federal mandates like the ABCs and No Child Left Behind leave little wiggle room.

"I have never seen anything in the regs (regulations) that says if you don't have the personnel, you don't have to meet these standards," Taylor said. "We have got a great staff, great teachers, support staff -- like transportation, technology and all those areas -- and central office staff. We're going to work as hard as we can with the dollars that we have to get the most bang for our buck when it comes to student achievement. But it limits our ability to enhance our programs.

"When you cut personnel, you cut services to children. If you cut support services, ultimately that all ties together what you do for children."

Ideally, the superintendent would like to be the bearer of good news. At the same time, he is constrained by what he is able to promise at this point.

"I know that our employees are concerned about their jobs, and we don't want to overreact," he said. "I have gotten things on a given day that are one way, and within 24 hours there was a different angle. We can do no more than anyone else."

Likewise, members of the General Assembly has a tough job before them, Taylor said.

"They have a shortfall and the budget has to be balanced," he said. "I certainly don't want education to take all the hit. We understand that we have to share in this budget and this responsibility, but we all know that North Carolina and the United States are going to continue to move forward. We have to provide a quality educational program for our students. I think the General Assembly has been and hopefully will be cognizant of that."

It's not just a county state problem, Taylor said. Right now, the economy is a universal concern.

Hopefully, he said, when the situation ebbs there might be some sort of "sunset clause" that will allow whatever is lost in the short run to be restored to where things were.

Throughout, though, Taylor said he remains optimistic.

"I really believe our legislative delegation is working hard for us, for education," he said. "But at the same time they have to balance all that with all that's out there. ...

"There isn't a position that's not important, in my opinion, (that) should not be utilized when it comes to working with children in classrooms. The fact of the matter is we're going to have to do more with less. Unless something major happens that we're not anticipating and they come out and education is untouched -- that's probably the panacea, not reality."

Right now, it's a "waiting game" for educators, Taylor said.

"But we have been planning every day since the budget negotiations started -- through the governor, the Senate, through the House and what's going on now," he said. "Once we get the budget, I will come back with a plan to the board. They understand the dilemma we're in. We want to let our people know as soon as possible so they can make their plans for next year."