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NC lawmakers get grim news on school cut options

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press / December 7, 2010

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RALEIGH, N.C.—Potential spending cuts to close a $3 billion-plus budget gap next year could mean layoffs for thousands of public school teachers and university faculty, increase class sizes and reduce the courses offered, North Carolina education administrators told lawmakers Tuesday.

Administrators for the public schools, community colleges and university system on Tuesday described how they would be affected by spending cuts of 5 percent or 10 percent to a General Assembly oversight committee. Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue asked for those options as she assembles her budget proposal through mid-2013.

The prospect of slashing budgets for the third year in row due to the bad economy and sputtering revenue becomes more daunting in 2011 because federal stimulus money is drying up and the new Republican majority has pledged to let temporary sales and income taxes expire. Perdue told reporters separately Tuesday it's her intent not to propose new taxes, either.

"It's all very depressing and doom and gloom," said Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, an oversight committee member and former public school teacher and administrator. "It's really going to affect kids, families, teachers and communities."

While Republican leaders have said they will aim to protect the core of education when they assemble the state budget and suggest alternative methods to fund education, it will be difficult to avoid deep cuts there. The three branches of North Carolina education comprised 57 percent of this year's nearly $19 billion state spending plan. That didn't include stimulus money.

Presentations to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee offered possible cuts that are months away from being considered or finalized. The Legislature would have to approve any reductions and Perdue would be asked to sign the plan into law.

Still, the extent of the potential cuts was sobering to lawmakers and administrators.

Philip Price, chief financial officer of the Department of Public Instruction, said its 10 percent agency reduction could mean the elimination of 5,313 classroom teaching positions through a $292.5 million reduction. The proposal also would eliminate funding for teaching assistants in grades 1-3, leaving them only for kindergarten.

The proposal also would eliminate state funding completely for school technology, staff technology and dropout prevention grants.

In the UNC system, a 10 percent reduction, or $270 million, would eliminate funding for 2,000 positions, half of them faculty members, and eliminate 6,400 course sections on campus.

Library hours, support for graduate teaching and tutoring and advising also likely would be reduced on campus, the system's report said. The North Carolina School for Science & math could see upper-level math electives eliminated and the UNC School of the Arts would have to examine closing its film school, said Jeff Davies, chief of staff to outgoing University of North Carolina system President Erskine Bowles.

Budget reductions in previous years have focused more upon administrative reductions, including the reduction of 900 positions, Davies said. But there's little left there to cut, he said.

"We feel like that we are dangerously thin in that area," Davies told the committee. "The focus will be more upon our academic programs."

Additional tuition increases of up to $750 per student authorized by the Legislature helped offset many campus reductions this year. Potential campus tuition increases of up to 6.5 percent could help again but wouldn't meet most of the proposed reductions, UNC system spokeswoman Joni Worthington said later Tuesday.

The North Carolina Community College System said a 10 percent reduction, or $107 million, would cut literacy programs, result in fewer program offerings and delay students from graduating. More part-time faculty also would be used, which could threaten campus accreditation. A tuition increase by $10 per credit hour to $66.50 also is possible, said Jennifer Haygood, the system's vice president for business and finance.

The reduction would come as enrollment is expected to by the equivalent of 9,700 full-time students, Haygood said. Over the past three years, enrollment has grown by 25 percent, or 50,000 students.

"Our growth may be slowing, but it is still significant," Haygood said.