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Senator: NC classroom layoffs will decrease

Posted October 4, 2011 2:56 p.m. EDT
Updated October 4, 2011 5:54 p.m. EDT

— The number of layoffs in North Carolina public school classrooms this school year will be much lower than what was reported to educators when classes began in August, a Republican budget-writer predicted Tuesday.

The forecast by Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, is the latest argument over a state budget approved in June that GOP leaders said contained enough funding for local school districts to preserve teacher and teaching assistant positions.

Democrats say that didn't happen, and point to state education data showing 2,421 educators were cut as the school year began, including 534 teachers and 1,260 teaching assistants, according to the Department of Public Instruction. The agency also said the state's 115 school districts have eliminated 6,383 positions this fiscal year, but a majority of them already were vacant.

Tillman said the figure of almost 1,800 isn't accurate right now because districts hire in the first few weeks of classes as districts figure out their staffing needs for the entire school year. State employment figures for September released later this month should prove it, he said.

"You will see that there are few if any teacher positions lost or teacher assistants," Tillman told reporters before a meeting of the legislature's education oversight committee. "When it's all said and done and all positions are hired ... you will find that's not the case."

Tillman's views don't jibe with the reality in the school districts, said Brian Lewis, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's leading teacher lobbying group.

Although the Republican-penned budget gives $61.7 million to local school districts to hire another 1,124 teachers in grades 1-3, Lewis said the size of third-grade classes are ballooning well above the fiscal allotment to provide one teacher for every 18 students.

"We have fewer adults teaching more children," Lewis said. He said cuts in the overall public schools budget — a net $459 million reduction compared to what was projected to keep the schools running at current levels this year — still results in layoffs.

"I would get out of the prediction business," Lewis said. "I would figure out how we can fund public education at the level parents and their children deserve."

The budget required school districts to find another $124 million in spending cuts this school year, as well as to cut funds for assistant principals, central office staff and clerical and janitorial workers. Tillman and other Republicans have said school district leaders had flexibility to preserve classroom positions if they want to do so. The districts also had a combined $250 million in federal education jobs funds that state education officials would save about 5,000 jobs this school year.

The Department of Public Instruction's media office didn't return a phone call and emails Tuesday seeking information on updated data from the school districts.

A new liberal-leaning watchdog group called Progress North Carolina held a news conference outside a legislative office building before the meeting was scheduled to demand Republican leaders acknowledge their budget problems. The committee didn't discuss the job cuts.

"They're not owning up to the disconnect," said Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress NC. "They need to get with the program."

The group brought about 2,000 "pink slips" to its event to display the classroom impact of the Republican-backed budget.

"They pulled the money, and they passed the buck on who's to blame for the cuts to the classroom," Brenner said.

Tillman countered that school districts could have made other cuts and kept teachers and teaching assistants.

"People play games with those numbers, but I'm just telling you what I know we funded," he said. "I'm not telling you how the superintendents choose to use that. We want them to have flexibility. They need it. But we did try to protect the classroom."

House Speaker Thom Tillis said during the legislative session lawmakers would hold legislative hearings with school superintendents in districts that lay off teachers to find out why. The hearings have yet to be scheduled.