Behind the numbers: Education cuts

Gov. Bev Perdue says her budget proposal protects classrooms. But the rest of the state's educational operations would face steep cuts.

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Laura Leslie

Governor Perdue said today her budget plan protects teachers and pays for new students coming into North Carolina schools. Technically, that's true. But that doesn’t mean she’s not making big cuts to education overall — and the proposal she released today uses some careful wording to make it work.

For example, take the “enrollment growth” formula.

The state pays each of its public schools and universities a set amount of money per attending student. That’s known as “Average Daily Membership” money, and it’s the lifeblood of most schools.

For K-12 education, about 75 cents of the state’s dollar goes directly to the classroom to pay teachers and teaching assistants. The other 25 cents pays for support services — administration, facility services, transportation, and so on.

For community colleges and universities, the classroom portion is smaller — around 55 to 60 cents of the state’s dollar. The rest supports other functions outside the classroom.

State budget writers always include current enrollment numbers in next year's spending plan. They're part of what's called the "continuation" budget. But every year, there's an add-on called "enrollment growth." The state’s schools and universities figure out how many extra students they’ll add next school year, and they send the state a bill for them.

Perdue's budget chief Charlie Perusse said today that in figuring the cost for “enrollment growth" students next year, the governor decided to make a change: The state would pay only for the classroom portion of the per-pupil money.

In other words:

  • Public schools would get only 75 percent of the per-pupil money they were expecting for their 5,300 additional students.
  • Universities and community colleges would get just 55 to 60 percent of what they say they need for the 2,300 added UNC students and 9,700 added full-time community college students they expect to enroll.

The formula change here affects only added students, not current ADM, so the difference — $40 million or so — is relatively small in the context of an overall education budget that exceeds $11.2 billion. But it’s just one example of how small policy changes that aren’t always spelled out in the budget document can make a big difference in the real world, where $40 million is nobody’s pocket change.

Not-so-small numbers

Perdue’s budget proposal spells out deep cuts in other non-classroom funding streams, too. Perusse estimates about 4,400 district positions would no longer be paid for under the proposed spending plan:

  • 1,700 in non-instructional support (clerical and custodial)
  • 1,900 in transportation (yellow bus transportation)
  • 380 in school building administration
  • 290 in instructional support
  • 140 in school district offices

If you break it down by 115 school districts, it’s an average of 38 position cuts per district (though some are much larger than others, so bigger districts would likely see higher numbers).

It’s hard to imagine how schools could absorb cuts that steep without affecting the classroom in many ways. Some districts may look to boost local funding to help offset the cuts. But most counties aren't much better off budget-wise than the state is.

Staffing isn't the only cost that the governor's plan could shift to local districts. More on that here.

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