Raleigh, N.C. — As North Carolina's top political leaders spent much of August insisting the state was investing more than ever before in public education, Laura Rigsbee was scrimping.
The principal at Aycock Elementary School in Vance County would like to replace world maps that are out of date and science textbooks that were current when she was a classroom teacher 13 years ago. But higher priority goes to figuring out how to provide students with worksheets for reading and math classes without the money to buy new workbooks and a school supply budget that means copies have to be rationed among teachers.
"We don't have substitutes," Rigsbee said, noting that the budget isn't there to hire temporary replacements for teachers who are out sick. Teachers aides, gym coaches, librarians and even the principal fill in.
"It's very frustrating when you hear the governor say, 'We're giving more to the schools,' and then see all the red numbers on our side of the ledger," Rigsbee said. "If we're getting all this money, where's it going?"
How can it be true, as Gov. Pat McCrory recently proclaimed, that the state has "the largest K-12 budget in North Carolina history," and at the same time principals and teachers are scrambling for supplies and rearranging staff as the bulk of North Carolina's 1.5 million public school students return to the classroom this week?
The answer to that question is relatively simple: growth in public school spending has not kept up with the growth in North Carolina's student population. More complex, say educators around the state, are the consequences for the classrooms this year and into the future.
When is an increase a cut?
"If you've heard the media reports, you'd think funding for K-12 has been cut," McCrory told business executives at an Aug. 1 North Carolina Chamber of Commerce event. "It has not been cut. In fact, at $7.8 billion, this is the largest K-12 budget in North Carolina history. This year's K-12 budget is $23 million more than we spent last year."
That "$23 million more" that McCrory talked about is the increase in year-over-year K-12 spending for the budget year that began July 1.
Coming this week: WRAL goes back to school
Monday: School funding debate meets reality
Monday: Keeping an eye on school transportation issues
Tuesday: Superintendent contracts packed with perks
Wednesday: Teachers leave the profession in search of better pay
Thursday: Graduation rates tell success stories, offer challenges
Thursday: More on the Common Core
"A public claim that money was added to North Carolina public schools is plain and simple a falsehood,” North Carolina Association of Educators President Rodney Ellis said in a recent statement.
The teachers' association estimates public education spending was actually cut by somewhere between 1.5 percent to 3 percent.
While McCrory was not lying, his speech didn't tell the whole story. This year's $23 million funding increase represented a 0.3 percent boost in overall public schools funding in terms of raw dollars. At the same time, public schools expect enrollments to grow by 1.1 percent statewide this year. Or put another way, student population is expected to grow four times more quickly than funding.
A separate analysis by the Department of Public Instruction suggests that public school funding was $282.5 million higher in 2008-09 than it is for this coming year, after taking into account shifts to how school funds flow. Over that same period, 33,419 students headed to public schools. The results are basically the same: student population growing faster than the available funds coming from the state.
McCrory's own budget staff gave a nod to growing enrollments when he drafted the budget he presented to lawmakers earlier this year. That proposed spending plan included something known as a "recommended base budget." In layman's terms, that is the amount of money budget writers estimate would be needed to provide the same level of service as the year before, accounting for inflation and population growth.
The budget passed by lawmakers falls $117 million short of that mark, a 1.5 percent cut. So while the overall amount of money spent on public education goes up, the amount spent on each student goes down.
How keenly those cuts are felt depends on the school district. Many counties supplement state funds with local money for schools. Vance County gets about $8.7 million from county taxpayers but still had to eliminate 16 teacher assistant positions.
Although Rigsbee says she will have teachers in her classrooms, she will be pressed to keep them in supplies and support. For example, the district has cut back on instruction support positions, individuals who helped teachers master new curricula and figure out how to work with particularly challenged students.
"Those people really helped us out," she said. "That's going to hurt my staff development."
Bigger systems have advantages
Due to differences in seniority, education and specialty, translating changes in the state budget to impact on a local school system workforce can be imprecise. But some back-of-the-envelope math tells Aaron Beaulieu, Durham Public Schools' newly installed chief financial officer, that his system would have lost 203 positions across the county.
Durham was able to avoid that cut this year by spending down its savings. That option, Beaulieu said, won't be available next year. That will cause the budget process for the 2014-15 school year to begin soon, with Durham looking for ways to sock away money against the possibility of another funding cut.
In the mean time, Beaulieu frets about some items needed to teach students.
"We've lost textbook and supply money," he said. That amounts to $1.7 million for textbooks and another $1 million in supplies that schools will either have to do without or find other ways to replace. "And they're keeping school buses on the road longer."
This year's budget ups the miles a school bus must travel before it is eligible to be replaced from 200,000 to 250,000 miles. That extra time on the road, he said, means the district will be picking up more costs for repairs and maintenance as the buses age.
In Wake County, a spokeswoman says the district is in "a sound position" for the upcoming school year. Unlike in Vance County, for example, elementary schools were able to keep the bulk of their teaching assistants thanks to county support, said Gary Baird, principal at Lead Mine Elementary School in Raleigh. In his school, Baird said, those assistants are spread more thinly – often shared between classes rather than assigned to just one classroom – than they were five years ago, but he was glad to keep them.
That said, the budget does present challenges for Wake County educators.
"It's just all belt tightening," Baird said. "The big hit we took a year or so ago was when they did away with our media center clerical help."
That assistant checked out books to students and did other administrative tasks while the media specialist – whom many would call the librarian – taught classes. Since then, he said, Lead Mine Elementary has tried to cover that position with volunteers, with mixed results.
The Wake County Public School System employed 9,662 teachers as of Aug. 20. That's 104 more than were employed right before the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. Still, according to Wake County's own numbers, the student population is expected to have grown by 2 percent over the summer, while the number of teachers has grown by just under 1.1 percent. In faster-growing schools, that will mean bigger class sizes. It is possible some fifth-grade classrooms will have more than 30 children in them.
Baird said his class sizes have held steady, but he is turning to locally generated revenue – money from an after-school program run at the school or the Parent Teacher Association – to pay for some items the district used to fund.
Local funds, Baird said, used to go for extras like smart boards and other technology. Now, they're paying for copier machine contracts and extra hand-held devices needed to conduct state-required assessments. For example, Study Island is a popular online learning resource that the school is now paying for with its own local revenue rather than district funds.
Sometimes, the drain on resources comes from unexpected places. Special-education teachers deal with students who have multiple health problems, he said. Those teachers use gloves for feeding and changing diapers.
"We run through an ungodly amount of gloves," he said. While the district picks up some of the cost of the gloves, he anticipates dipping into other instruction funds late in the year to purchase more.
All of that said, Baird sounds excited to begin his 38th year in public education.
"I think we're definitely headed in the right direction," he said.
Teacher salaries a looming issue
More than supplies or textbooks, school administrators say they're keeping an eye on the budget's impact on teachers. State budget writers didn't raise teacher salaries overall, but they did give school districts the ability to offer $500-per-year bonuses to up to 25 percent of their teachers if they sign four-year contracts. That could mean a $2,000 raise for those who presumably are a district's best teachers.
In Wake County, Baird said that he has seen some anecdotal reports of teachers leaving for other states, but he is concentrating on teacher morale in his own school. In Vance County, Rigsbee said she was able to land qualified teachers because there are so many looking for jobs right now.
But salary trends are troubling, school leaders say.
"My daughter started teaching in Tennessee this year, and she will be making approximately $10,000 a year more than she would be making in North Carolina," said Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District near Charlotte.
Mooresville is often cited by state leaders as a success story that can lead the way for other school districts. It has one of the highest graduation rates in the state, despite having the second-lowest per-pupil spending across the state's 114 school districts.
"They achieved these results through innovation and successful programs based on digital technology and through the creativity of Dr. Mark Edwards, the National Superintendent of the Year," House Speaker Thom Tillis wrote in a recent column defending the state's education budget.
Edwards acknowledged that, yes, a program that ensures all students in grades 3 through 12 have laptops has helped, but it is not the only answer.
"The key is not a piece of hardware," Edwards said. "The key is our teachers utilizing and building capacity of students to use information."
Those teachers, he said, are laboring under the strain of stagnant salaries and beginning to look to other nearby states, such as Tennessee and Virginia, as places where they could be paid more to pursue their chosen profession.
"We have to reconcile compensation to a level that's at least commensurate with adjoining states," Edwards said.
Edwards, who is a non-voting member of the State Board of Education, said he has heard from Tillis, McCrory and others about the importance of boosting teacher salaries. Teacher pay, he said, has been a topic of conversation among state board members.
"The area of my greatest concern is compensation – for teachers as well as all education employees," he said.
But that is a topic lawmakers will have to take up in 2014. For this year, he said, school districts are left to deal with the reality of the state budget. For his district, that means a roughly $700,000 cut to deal with.
"I'm fired up. This is my 19th year as a superintendent," he said. "I can feel the adrenaline as we're talking."
He'll put that energy to use figuring out how to deal with a maximum class size that will rise from 29 in middle and high school to around 31 or 32 students – 34 in some cases. In some classrooms, he said, there won't be enough room for a teacher's desk.
As with most educators across the state, Edwards stays away from the political debate and the spin over how much money the budget does or doesn't put into K-12 education. As students return to school this week, reality kicks in.
"We have less dollars to get the job done," he said.