05/24/11 — Senators: Saving money, school success part of plan

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Senators: Saving money, school success part of plan

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 24, 2011 1:46 PM

As state senators begin debate on their $19.3 billion spending plan today, only about $60 million separate them from their colleagues in the House.

"I think we're close together," Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, said. "I think we'll be able to get together and present a good budget to the governor."

And speaking Monday about the differences between the two chambers' budgets, Pate highlighted the Senate's proposal for education spending, including their increases in teachers and cuts to administration.

Of the $19.3 billion budget, he said, $10.7 billion of that would be allocated to education -- $7.2 billion to public schools, $2.4 billion to universities and $982 million to community colleges. In comparison, he said, the House budget would put $7.1 billion toward public schools, $2.44 billion to universities and $991 million to community colleges.

The increase in public school funding, Pate explained, will allow schools to hire more than 1,100 new teachers, reducing class sizes in first, second and third grades. According to a release from the office of Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston, that would mean a reduction of one teacher for every 18 students, to one teacher for every 17 students, with the eventual goal being one teacher for every 15 students.

The Senate also would continue to fund teacher assistants in kindergarten and special needs classes.

And, Pate said, the Senate finds the funds for those positions through cuts to administrative costs and "wasteful programs and unnecessary bureaucracy." However, he did not identify what programs or which administrative positions would be on the chopping block.

"You can believe that about everything we spend will be classroom oriented," he said.

Additionally, he said, as they work to find solutions to a graduation rate that's 43rd in the nation, they also are proposing lengthening the school year from 180 to 185 instructional days.

"We (the U.S.) have the shortest academic calendar in the world, and we're going to start pulling up out of that here in North Carolina," Pate said.

They also, he explained, want to develop a program that would put more emphasis on making sure all students are reading at grade level by the fourth grade.

"Studies have shown that if students are reading at grade level in their early grades, they have a better chance of graduating," he said.

Additionally, he continued, the Senate is proposing that $325 million be spent to begin paying teachers based on performance rather than longevity, and that a panel begin studying immediately how best to implement that effort.

And finally, he said, the Senate budget would provide for $117 million more in school construction spending than the governor's plan, announced earlier this year.

Other highlights of the Senate budget, he said, are itws continuing efforts to reduce Medicare costs -- likely through the increased use of a managed care program for Medicare patients -- the reorganization of several state departments and cabinet positions, including the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the fully funding of the state retirement plan, the rainy day fund and the state building renovation and repair fund.

Most important, he said, is the elimination of the temporary sales tax -- a move he said some economists from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have estimated could help create upward of 12,000 new private sector jobs.

"A lot of people are saying it's just a penny, but it's really a billion dollars, and putting a billion dollars back in the hands of the taxpayers will help out a lot with our job situation," Pate said. "In terms of state job loss, there will be some that are filled with workers and I'm sad that people will lose their jobs, but just about all of the positions being cut are vacant positions."

And later, he said, he expects the General Assembly will take up a separate job creation package to offer incentives to businesses expanding or bringing new jobs into the state.

Overall, he said, he's pleased with the budget that's expected to come out of the Senate, noting that it's about $700 million less than Gov. Beverly Perdue's proposal and about $1 billion less than last year.

"We didn't create this mess, but we inherited a real mess. We've got a $2.5 million shortfall and we've got to straighten it out," he said.

The key, said Rouzer in a release, especially in terms of education spending, "isn't how much you spend that makes the difference, it is how you spend what you have."