Local News

Smaller School Systems Feel Brunt Of Budget Cuts

Posted August 23, 2004

— While the fight over school funding continues for poor districts, other systems across the state are giving money back -- about $71 million, or an average of $52 per student.

Wake County is giving back nearly $6 million, Cumberland County $2.8 million, Durham County $1.6 million and Johnston County $1.4 million.

Larger school systems often can absorb the cuts in funding. But it is harder for the smaller systems to fill the holes.

There are mixed messages with the return of the money. On one hand, there are budget cuts for a third year in a row. On the other, schools are getting more money to reduce third-grade class size.

Poorer districts like Harnett County are happy to see the extra dollars for third-graders, but not at the expense of others.

In Louann Beasley's second-grade classroom at Coats Elementary, there are two lessons, one in English, one in Spanish. Twenty-nine percent of the students at Coats Elementary use English as a second language. Thirty-six are in the second grade.

"We're carrying 26 to 25 students per class in second grade, and we do not have the number of teachers we need to meet the needs of those ESL students," Coats Elementary Principal Robyn Fischer said.

So, state budget cuts sting. Nearly $890,000 were eliminated from the budget here this year.

"It's a tremendous amount," Superintendent Donald Andrews said. "It's a tremendous hit for us."

The state added money to reduce third-grade class size. But Andrews would rather have the freedom to spend the money in other places.

"We felt like it limited what we could do," Andrews said, "because we don't have the local dollars to flex."

The governor's office has a different way of looking at the figures, saying school districts are getting more money across the board every year for more resources.

"The fact of the matter is they've gotten an increase," policy advisor Dan Gerlach said.

Gerlach said funding jumped from $5.9 billion to $6.1 billion this year and that it covers special needs. But while Harnett County would like to have more money for ESL teachers, it's the state's job to prioritize.

"We have to maintain some sort of fiscal discipline to make sure we don't spend all of our money this year, and next year have nothing," Gerlach said.

The governor's plan to reduce third-grade class size pumps $50 million into schools for extra third-grade teachers. The governor's office said responsibility for the state's education, ultimately, falls on its shoulders.

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