12/13/10 — School officials keep eye on state

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School officials keep eye on state

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 13, 2010 1:46 PM

Facing possible 5 to 10 percent cuts to public school funding, the rumor mill has churned up of late -- hinting at possibilities ranging from teacher layoffs and larger class sizes to eliminating junior varsity sports and after school programs.

Officials in Wayne County Public Schools are hearing the same rumors, they say, but caution against taking stock in the rumblings.

"Everything is subject to change. We don't know from year to year," said Dr. Steven Taylor, schools superintendent.

With a pending $3.5 billion shortfall faced by the state, legislators have a "tremendous task" in front of them, Taylor said.

"We have had a real budget crisis going on for three years," he said. "In my opinion, this is probably the worst projection that we have looked at in the last three years.

"We have cut $5 million out of our budget in the last two years."

The trend does not seem to be reversing, as districts across the state are forced to play out a variety of scenarios for the year ahead -- taking out another 5 or 10 percent in cuts, which are on top of what has already been taken from the schools coffers.

"Our experience with the state has been when they reduce the budget, they never go back and replace it," he said.

"The reality is that 5 percent adds up to 9 percent and 10 percent adds up to 14 percent, taking into consideration what we have already done," added Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for finance. "This year, we cut $4 million out of the state so we're going to almost double that."

By contrast, Taylor said, the district has not had to lay off a single employee. Instead, as staff retire, those vacancies are simply not filled, he explained.

"Our approach is this -- we try to maintain the integrity of our programs but at the same time to protect jobs," he said. "Any time you reduce personnel, you cut services to children."

In the meantime, personnel have had to work "doubly hard" to get the jobs done, Taylor said, realizing that there isn't much choice in the matter. When the state says to cut corners, districts have to comply.

There are many scenarios that can be followed when that happens, the superintendent said. But at the same time, there are numerous mandates which must still be met.

"The state or the feds have never sent me a letter about being flexible about the standards that we have to meet," he said. "We still have to meet those benchmarks with less resources, so it makes our jobs more difficult."

The district started the current school year down 130 positions because of all the budget cuts, Taylor said.

Stimulus dollars helped, as 30 positions were able to be filled and through good stewardship, the district can hold onto them for another year.

"It's an ongoing job trying to figure out how to maneuver through this," Taylor said. "When we do our budget process after the first of the year, probably in all likelihood we will probably not have a budget from Raleigh. We're hoping that by the end of the year, by July 1 at least we'll have a state budget.

"All we can go by is projections and what ifs."

The local district will proceed "as if," starting its annual budget process in January, sending out requests to the schools for their individual priorities list, which target buildings, equipment, technology and personnel, Mrs. Barwick said.

Aware that the state is not required to have a balanced budget by June 30, Taylor said he is grateful that local dollars have remained more consistent.

"We appreciate the fact that the county commissioners have not reduced their allotments," he said. "We need every one of those dollars because the cost of living goes up each year. Those local dollars are vital."

Legislators at the higher levels, however, are another matter.

While maintaining an effort to protect education, schools are still expected to feel some of the fallout, Taylor said.

"I heard Gov. Perdue say that education will take its hits," he said. "We know that we'll be on the chopping block and have to face our challenges. Mrs. Barwick and I will go to a dozen meetings between now and the end of the school year and hear a dozen different things.

"What we do, and we plan conservatively initially to make sure that we have a fallback plan in case it doesn't go the way we plan, we don't want to go to layoffs. ... I guess anything is possible but we certainly try to plan with the least impact."

Districts typically assess possible areas that can take a hit without compromising on quality of education or eliminating programs and services, Taylor said.

After all, he continued, education is a big business.

Wayne County Public Schools is ranked the 20th largest school district in the state, out of 115 districts, and is the second largest employer in the county. Not to mention the important role education plays in the lives of children and their future.

One bright spot was hearing that not only is the economic situation reversing, but that N.C. is among those states that are "turning the economy around," Taylor said.

"That's good news for us because we're going to have to do some sacrificing but hopefully for us we're going to come out of this," he said. "I think parents and employees certainly are concerned. With the schools, that was never an issue, having to lay people off."

At this point, though, there is no control over the budget and nothing has been determined, the superintendent said.

"I think everything on the table is to be looked at, but I can tell you we have made no decisions to cut anything or made any recommendations to the board," he said. "We'll do what we have to do, but we want to maintain the integrity of our programs (and) certainly think that the extra curricular activities that we have are as important to the development of the whole child."