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Budget Writers Agree To Fully Fund More At Four, Smaller Classes

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RALEIGH, N.C. — House and Senate negotiators have agreed to fully fund Gov. Mike Easley's proposals to reduce third-grade class sizes and expand the

More at Four

preschool program, budget-writers said Friday.

The decisions, although not final, would give Easley another education victory on two key initiatives he campaigned on in 2000, and for which he has received full funding in every budget year since.

The Senate had passed a budget that spent less than half the $59 million that Easley sought, citing local educators who said it would be hard to find the space and teachers to reduce average third-grade class sizes to 18 students.

Senators also did not want funding for More at Four to overlap with federal Head Start money used for similar purposes.

Though the House's spending plan had given Easley all the money he sought for the programs, Sen. Linda Garrou, a co-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said last week the Senate was determined to stand its ground.

Garrou said Friday the Senate agreed to full funding in part to move budget negotiations with the House and Easley forward.

The 2005 fiscal year began on Thursday. Legislators still do not expect to have an updated spending plan in place until next week.

"You've got to come to the point and decide," said Garrou, a Forsyth County Democrat. "This is a three-legged stool."

Garrou's counterpart in the House, Rep. Robert Grady, R-Onslow, confirmed the full funding for More at Four and class-size reductions.

"Those parts have been agreed to," he said before resuming negotiations Friday morning.

Garrou said it also looked like local educators will be ordered to reduce their spending by an additional $27.7 million, as the House's budget plan required. That is on top of $44 million in discretionary reductions districts already have been told to find in fiscal 2005.

The General Assembly is adjusting the second year of a two-year budget approved last year. With the fiscal year already under way, government agencies are operating under the budget currently on the books, while awaiting Easley's signature on the new plan.

A $12 million Senate budget provision aimed at meeting the demands of a Wake County judge who told legislators to do more to help the state's poorest school districts also will not remain in the final budget, Grady said.

The money was supposed to go to a new program aimed at helping the neediest districts improve test scores of poor performing students, in some cases be reducing class sizes to 15 students.

Negotiators instead agreed to give $7.5 million to poor districts and those in small counties to use as they see fit, according to budget-writers.

Grady said budget-writers understood the decision may precisely meet the judge's requests.But he noted that the additional money should still help disadvantaged students.

Budget negotiators have not settled on raises for state employees. One proposal would raise salaries by either 2.5 percent or $1,000, depending on which amount would give a bigger raise.

Both sides already have agreed on larger raises for community college staff.

Legislative leaders have received scores of e-mails from the

North Carolina Association of Educators

lobbying for a 5-percent raise.

Following Friday's negotiations, budget writers hoped to take the weekend off and return to work Monday.

House leaders earlier in the week cautioned against rushing to get the budget done ahead of the weekend.

"It's more important to get it done right than it is to get it done fast," House Co-Speaker Jim Black said.

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