Governor divvies up emergency education funding, draining disputed source for teacher bonuses

Democrats and Republicans debated ground rules for federal money, which Gov. Roy Cooper plans to use to hire more school nurses and fund other student supports.

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Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — The state will use nearly $100 million in emergency education funding to hire more school nurses and other personnel, support at-risk students and help fund college tuition, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday.

The $95.6 million in announced spending comes from an account set aside for the governor to divvy up out of a much larger outlay of federal coronavirus pandemic relief funding.

Republican lawmakers had asked the governor to tap the account for $600 bonuses payable to teachers and other school employees, including bus drivers and custodians, but the Cooper administration said repeatedly that the law doesn't allow him to spend it that way.

“Learning during a pandemic is an unprecedented challenge for students and staff, whether in the classroom or remotely," Cooper said in a news release. "This funding should help protect the physical and mental health at schools and help bridge the gap for students with unique learning needs."

The spending breaks down like this, according to Cooper's office:

  • $40 million to hire more school nurses, counselors, social workers and psychologists in public K-12 schools. The governor's office said this would this would fund the positions for two years and that keeping them beyond that would require a new funding source.
  • $20 million to help at-risk students and students with disabilities through after-school programs, tutoring and potentially by hiring more teachers or teacher assistants.
  • $15 million to the North Carolina Community College System for tuition assistance to students enrolled in short-term workforce training programs in high-demand fields.
  • $6 million to the University of North Carolina system for emergency assistance to in-state students "whose ability to complete their degree has been impacted by the pandemic."
  • $4 million to the State Education Assistance Authority for emergency student assistance at private colleges and universities.
  • $566,000 to the UNC system for the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and the UNC School of the Arts.
  • $10 million held in reserve to address future K-12 and postsecondary needs.

The money comes from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, or the GEER Fund. Cooper has until May of next year to allocate the funds, and recipients have until the end of September 2022 to spend them, the governor's office said.

Lawmakers approved $350 bonuses earlier this year for teachers – which they'll still get – as well as routine step increases for teachers in their first 15 years in the classroom. But leadership for the General Assembly's GOP majority said educators would have to forego the usual percentage raises this year because of the economic impacts of the pandemic, which are expected to cost the state billions of dollars in lost tax revenue.

The $350 across-the-board bonuses were funded, at least in part, out of money once earmarked for merit bonuses, which lawmakers said the state couldn't pay because the school year was cut short, leaving them without the end-of-year test results and other metrics that decide those bonuses.

This budget deal didn't include raises or bonuses for non-certified school employees, including cafeteria workers, bus drivers and custodians, though Democrats pressed unsuccessfully to add $1,000 bonuses for them and boost the teacher bonuses as well. Instead, Republican leaders called on Cooper to fund $600 bonuses for non-certified personnel, plus an extra $600 per teacher, out of the GEER Fund.

The Governor's Office said well before the teacher pay measure passed that federal spending rules attached to pandemic relief funds prohibited him from doing that, but GOP lawmakers and their staff analysts disagreed.

"Section 18002 of the CARES Act says that GEER funds 'may be used to provide emergency support' to (school systems), postsecondary institutions or other education-related entities impacted by COVID," Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in an email Wednesday. "While providing teachers and other educators with bonuses is important, across-the-board teacher bonuses would not qualify as 'emergency support.'"

Cooper's release Wednesday included a brief comment from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, who is a Republican.

"We are grateful for this funding from the federal government and appreciate that so much of it will support our public school students," Johnson said.


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