11/20/11 — Schools facing tougher budgets

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Schools facing tougher budgets

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 20, 2011 1:50 AM

Larger class sizes, fewer new textbooks and having to compensate for the state's budget shortfalls are just a few of the economic woes being faced by districts like Wayne County Public Schools.

Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for finance, said the last two years have been the hardest she has experienced in her 28-year career.

Even stimulus dollars designed to offset some of the problems are not sufficient, and that money will soon come to end.

But it's the reversion requests -- school districts being asked to return funding back to the state -- that are the "big ticket item" on the list of budget constraints, Mrs. Barwick said.

"For 2008, our reversion piece was right at $760,000 and now in 2011-2012 we're up to almost $5.6 million and what that means is yes, the state gives allotments, funding amounts to us, but out of that they need this money back and (directs) the district to make that happen," she said. "I think that's where some of the conversation comes from the legislators -- yes, the allotment was given to us but it's taken back."

Wayne County fared better than most, she said.

"Our portion was $5.6 million. The others are getting into tens of millions of dollars," she said. "In our world, they fund the teachers and teacher assistants. They did give us the allotment, but the flip side is, they need that amount of money back.

"Retirement and health insurance rates have increased. There are just lots of little pieces to it that they just don't see."

While some districts opted to use stimulus money to hire additional teachers and staff, Wayne County did not. In lieu of filling 22 new positions -- which would ultimately have to be eliminated when the funding period ended -- the district used its portion of the federal dollars on technology and in Title I classrooms.

"It would have been easy to cut staff," said Ken Derksen, public information officer for the district. "But we're trying to save jobs."

"If I employed those 22, next year our reversion amount is going to be more, I already know that," Mrs. Barwick said. "I don't think we could have sustained that. I'm confident we couldn't have sustained that."

That is not to suggest that the school system wouldn't welcome the opportunity to expand its staff. While there are currently 1,250 state or federally funded teachers on the payroll, and another 469 instructional assistants, in 2010, the district started the school year down by 130 positions.

Any cuts in recent years, though, have been made through attrition, retirements and resignations. Each time funding is slashed, vacated positions have simply not been filled.

"We have not physically gone to someone and said, 'You're no longer with us due to budget cuts,'" Mrs. Barwick said.

"We don't have the staff that we had four years ago, and we have done that looking at programs and class offerings. Instead of having three guidance counselors, for example, schools may only have two now."

And unlike the days where there was a teacher assistant in every K-3 classroom, depending on the size of the school, that category has been reduced in some cases to about five or six per school.

"We are close to about 12 positions less today than we started out with four years ago," Mrs. Barwick said. "That doesn't sound like a whole lot in the scheme of things but it is."

Whether it's positions or programs, ultimately it all boils down to one thing when it comes to providing a public school education.

"There's no way we can put a budget together that will not affect the classroom," she said. "You stop and think about it -- everything that we do is for that child in the classroom, whether it's getting a bus there, whether it's paying the teachers, providing supplies and books, keeping the school clean -- there's not a thing that will not affect the classroom."

As the financial setbacks continue, there are other ramifications. The district has not been able to order new textbooks in a few years and cuts have been made in such areas as staff development, materials and technology.

"The allotments have been cut in half (in some areas) so in addition to the reversions, they have either changed the formula or decided not to fund it," Mrs. Barwick said.

Added to that have been such state mandates as class sizes, which were increased from 24 to 30.

"I believe I have also seen that the retirement rate is due to increase even more," she said. "I told the (school) board, we're at the top of a cliff. I'm afraid we're going to have to take a step and fall off a little bit.

"We have a lot of work to do this year to try to prepare for next year."

At the same time, the school system actually finds itself in a better position than some in the state, Mrs. Barwick said.

"I think we have been very fortunate, if you want to use that word, or maybe we have just been smart with the way that we chose to use all the stimulus dollars ... From the get-go we did not choose to shift over personnel costs," she said. "We started looking from the time those stimulus dollars came out, look at the retirements and significance of attrition to start maneuvering through.

"Now, these school districts that chose to use stimulus dollars, that money is gone. Those districts have had to lay off. That's why our numbers have been so much more pronounced."

Dr. Craig McFadden, assistant superintendent for accountability/student services, offers another byproduct. He says in terms of testing and student performance, the effects of cutbacks are just the tip of the iceberg.

"I think we have seen just the beginning of the decline," he said.

McFadden's job is to study and chart data from end-of-grade tests and keep up with how the county stacks up on the state's ABC model and federal No Child Left Behind. Such programs have been going on long enough now, he said, to make a connection to the economy.

"The nice thing with the testing program now is that we have got 15 years of ABC data that we can look back on (and) look at trends," he said. "With the exception of years when standards were raised, obviously those years the scores were down, except for those years, and there were only two of them (one when reading tests were revamped, one for math) there were declines statewide."

Scores have steadily risen since 1996-97 until the last two years, McFadden said, at which time they have dropped in Wayne County as well as the state.

"It's a correlation," he said. "I can't say that definitely the budget cuts have caused the decline, but they have never declined in 15 years. I cannot explain why they have declined."

Terming it a situation of "correlated events," McFadden said it seems reasonable to conclude that the budget cuts have had a "negative impact" on student test performance. Changes to the reading standards were made in 2004 and the math two years later.

It stands to reason, he said, that if jobs are eliminated and thousands of teaching positions "are not there any more," and there has been a loss of special area teachers, while the number of students remains the same, that would be reflected in how students score on the standardized tests.

"I think we're just seeing the beginning of how these cuts are going to impact test scores," he said. "Education is a labor intensive operation. If you lose some of the labor, it's going to impact on the output. That's just a logical deduction."

In a way, McFadden said, not using stimulus money to fill positions simply delayed the situation that other systems across the state are now experiencing.

"It's sad because North Carolina, they have come so far," he said. "When I came here (37 years ago) N.C. was ranked 47th (in education). Over the years with all these efforts of all the money that's been put in education, we're about the middle of the pack, 24th, 25th in the country. I'm afraid with these cuts we'll lose that standing."

It'll likely be a few years before there is any notable shift in the economy, Mrs. Barwick said.

"I think it's going to take awhile," she said. "Because our fear is, OK, we have been able to manage with the budget that we have been given. Is it going to be perceived that we never needed the money in the first place?"

Even though it's admittedly a precarious situation, school budgets are still required each year. And planning needs to be done sooner rather than later, she said.

"I have even told the board and the superintendent that we're probably going to have to do some budget sessions early to prepare for what's coming down the pike," she said. "We can't wait until June to decide, 'Oh, my, we don't have that $11.5 million.'"

One plus has been the fact that county funding has remained steady.

"It hasn't changed but it hasn't decreased either," Mrs. Barwick said. "We have been fortunate that they haven't cut us.

"That $18 million just doesn't go as far as it used to. But we're thankful that the school district has not had to make cuts (there)."