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Senate budget offer met with skepticism

Posted September 1, 2015

Chief House Budget negotiator Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, speaks with reporters Sept. 1, 2015.

— The latest budget offer from the state Senate is getting a cool welcome from House negotiators, even though it would fund some of their key priorities.

The Senate's Monday night offer would continue last year's funding for driver's education. It would also continue current funding for teacher assistants – a big change from the earlier Senate proposal to cut more than half of the currently funded positions. But it would restrict how school districts could use that money, limiting it for only teacher assistants, not for teachers, supplies or other needs.

The diversion by local school leaders of teacher assistant funding for other school needs has long been a sore spot for Senate leaders, who have repeatedly used it as a justification for cutting that funding.

On Tuesday morning, Senate chief budget negotiator Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, was optimistic, telling WRAL News that "the deal is in the works."

But House negotiators don't like the idea of restricting districts' financial flexibility, and neither does Gov. Pat McCrory.

House chief budget negotiator Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said he hadn't yet brought the proposal before the House Republican caucus.

"We re still working through that with our chairs and analyzing the details – some additional details that were provided to our education people this morning. So, that is continuing to be a work in progress," Dollar said.

Dollar said House budget negotiators "welcome the opportunity to fund our teaching assistants, which are critical to our students, as well as address the driver’s ed issue," but have concerns about the restriction of the TA funding.

"The flexibility is something the General Assembly has been working on and emphasizing over the past several years. So, I think there’s some clarification that needs to be there if we’re going to move away from having flexibility with the local school systems," he added, without offering further detail on what clarification might be needed.

Earlier Tuesday, McCrory also reiterated his support for flexible, non-restricted funding for teacher assistants, saying it "should be at a minimum the same and maybe even more" than last year's funding.

"Let the superintendents and principals make that determination. Provide the money to them and let them make their own determination based on each individual school’s needs," McCrory told reporters after the monthly Council of State meeting.

"I don’t think we have all the answers here inside the Beltline of micromanaging each school throughout our system," he said. "I think the principals and teachers and superintendents are the best administrators of where to spend that money for our students. Many of them feel very strongly teacher assistants are important. Let’s give them that flexibility."

McCrory also spoke in support of driver's education funding, even though his budget proposal would have ended state funding for the program.

"I'm an advocate, especially now that we have budget money, for driver's ed," he said. "I think we need to come to a resolution on that."

Dollar said progress is being made on other parts of the budget, particularly in transportation. That subcommittee was expected to complete its work Tuesday afternoon. However, Education and Health and Human Services subcommittees are still negotiating.

McCrory said he's playing an active role in those talks.

"I’ve actually been very involved more than anything in facilitating two groups that at times are in disagreement – not only between the two bodies, but at times within the two bodies themselves," he said, adding that he's "confident" the budget will be completed by the Sept. 18 deadline.

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