With most schools headed into their sixth week of classes this school year, Republican lawmakers and their critics are still arguing over how many teachers and teaching assistants have lost their jobs to state budget cuts.
At the General Assembly today, progressive advocacy group Progress NC set up its "pink slip" tour outside the meeting of the Education Oversight committee. Four big pieces of posterboard held more than 1800 pink post-it notes with county names on them, representing the 1,853 teachers and TAs the DPI says have been laid off.
Executive director Gerrick Brenner says lawmakers are desperately trying to dodge responsibility for cuts to K-12 education.
"They pulled the money and they passed the buck on who's to blame for the cuts to the classroom," Brenner said. "They clearly said they were funding K-12 education, and then they asked superintendents to make $400 million in discretionary cuts? That doesn't wash. And you can see what the results are."
"They're not owning up to the disconnect," Brenner said. "They need to get with the program and admit what's going on."
Brenner also took a swipe at House Speaker Thom Tillis, some of whose town hall meetings have also been stops on the "Pink Slip" tour: "It's interesting that someone who's a management consultant can't zero in on what the issue is."
Inside, at the Education Oversight committee meeting, Senate Chairman Jerry Tillman disagreed with Brenner's accusations.
"Every year you have people leaving for various reasons that get pink slips," Tillman said. "Just because you have a pink slip doesn't mean you were eliminated because the budget was not funded for teachers."
Tillman insisted lawmakers kept their promise to provide money for teachers and TAs while cutting positions elsewhere.
"People play games with those numbers, but I'm just telling you what I know we funded. I'm not telling you how the superintendents choose to use that," Tillman said. "We want them to have flexibility. They need it. But we did try to protect the classroom."
The Senate Education chairman also said he expects most laid-off classroom personnel have already been rehired. "Check the ESC report that's coming out October 21st, and you will see that there are few if any teacher positions lost, or teacher assistants," Tillman said.
State schools superintendent June Atkinson, also at the meeting, wasn't so optimistic. “Unless schools get money which I don’t know about,” she said, “those [layoff] numbers are accurate.”
“There’s going to be turnover,” she added. “There’s always some adjustments. But those numbers were for the start of the academic year. So I don’t know where that’s coming from.”
DPI spokeswoman Lynda Fuller said schools around the state are reporting their 20-day numbers right now - their average daily enrollment after four weeks of school. The 20-day number is the final determination of how many teachers each school needs, and how much the state will pay to fund them. They're expected to be released in mid-October.
Watch the raw interviews with Brenner and Tillman at right.