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Educators, others skeptical of proposed budget

Posted March 20, 2013 5:09 p.m. EDT
Updated March 20, 2013 11:09 p.m. EDT

— Education advocates, state employees and advocates for the poor expressed concern Wednesday for various provisions in Gov. Pat McCrory's $20.6 billion spending proposal for the coming year.

The budget, which lawmakers will start to review and dissect on Thursday, includes funds to hire 1,800 public school teachers over the next two years. The trade-off is that money for teaching assistants in the second and third grades has been cut from the budget.

"We're going to eliminate one of the best resources available to us? That's a major concern for us," said Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said she also dislikes pitting teachers against teaching assistants in terms of funding jobs. While calling a proposed 1 percent raise for teachers and state employees positive, she said below-average teacher pay remains a problem for North Carolina.

"On teacher salaries alone, North Carolina’s competitive edge is gone, and we are losing quality teachers every day because neighbor states offer better pay," Atkinson said in a statement.

"You're going to find some educators are going to still feel they're not at the level of appreciation," Ellis said.

Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said that he hopes lawmakers will "recognize the need to fund public services" as they craft their spending plans.

"I recognize that state employees and public services sacrificed during tough economic times and how important it is to you and your families to be fairly compensated for your part in making North Carolina a great place to work and live," Cope wrote in an email to SEANC members.

Funding for the University of North Carolina system would be slashed by another $135 million, although state budget director Art Pope said tuition for out-of-state students would increase by up to 12.6 percent to offset the lower appropriation.

"We are impacting out-of-state students and are increasing those costs, but my focus right now is on North Carolina citizens," McCrory said.

UNC President Tom Ross said he recognizes the 17-campus system must continue to do more with less as the state struggles to rebound from the recession, but he was surprised by yet another cut from a governor who professes support for education.

"I am very concerned by the magnitude of the new cuts proposed for our campuses, particularly in light of the more than $400 million in permanent budget reductions we absorbed two years ago," Ross in a statement. "I worry about the impact additional reductions will have on our ability to provide high-quality educational opportunities to our residents and to assist in North Carolina’s economic recovery."

McCrory did include $63 million in his two-year budget to start implementing the strategic plan the UNC Board of Governors recently adopted, and about one-third of the $150 million a year he set aside for repairs and renovations to government facilities is earmarked for universities.

Community colleges would get $28 million over two years for technical education programs and other $32 million for programs to meet the needs of North Carolina employers. Yet, its annual appropriation would be cut.

"At the end of the day, we would receive reductions in our recurring funds and increases in our non-recurring, one-time funds," said Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System.

North Carolina counties dislike the governor's division of proceeds from the state lottery, saying he is shortchanging school construction by $80 million and diverting that money to pre-kindergarten programs and classroom technology.

"The revenues from the education lottery, which now represent the only ongoing state support for public school construction, are helping counties throughout the state keep pace with increased enrollment, either by building new schools or expanding and renovating existing facilities,” David Thompson, executive director of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, said in a statement. "This will mark the fourth consecutive year that the county share of lottery proceeds has been reduced significantly."

Alexandra Sirota, director of the left-leaning North Carolina Budget & Tax Center, questioned whether some of McCrory's plans are sound, noting that the governor didn't address possible changes to the state's tax structure.

"The missing piece is how and who will pay to support these investments in future years," Sirota said in a statement. "Such information is critical to understanding whether the decisions about spending priorities can be sustained."

Left-leaning Progress North Carolina was more critical, saying the budget was "full of marginal changes and small ideas" that don't address the state's stubbornly high unemployment rate and low teacher pay.

Still, not all groups were skeptical of the budget proposal.

Together NC, a coalition of advocacy groups and professional associations, called McCrory's emphasis on investing in early education and health "a step in the right direction." The conservative John Locke Foundation praised the budget for not using money from the Highway Trust Fund and adding to the reserve fund.