State News

Senate budget gives more to teachers, less to fuel buses

The state Senate's proposed budget allows for higher teacher raises, but state education officials say they need more money to keep school buses running next year.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina Senate could end up giving Gov. Mike Easley a way to meet his goal of raising teacher salaries above the national average before he leaves office.

A provision included Tuesday in the chamber's revised spending proposal would allow the governor to give pay raises above the average of 3 percent included in the plan. Easley wants to give teachers a raise of nearly 7 percent.

But that would only happen under the Senate plan if economic conditions improve by the end of October, leading the state to bring in more money than officials currently expect.

Still, state education officials were disappointed the Senate spending plan allots $2.20 a gallon for diesel fuel to power school buses.

The state buys diesel in bulk but is still paying about $4 a gallon for fuel. The proposed budget passed by the state House would give the state Department of Public Instruction $3.71 a gallon for diesel.

"It also impacts the locals, which means that they will then have to divert money from other programs that are very important to helping our kids perform better in school," said Howard Lee, chairman of the State Board of Education.

Local school districts have to make up the difference in the budget allocation and the actual price for diesel fuel.

Last year, for example, lawmakers gave DPI $1.83 a gallon for diesel fuel, which meant Wake County received $5 million for its school buses. Even after state lawmakers approved an emergency appropriation in January to help districts cope with rising diesel prices, the Wake County school system had to pay an extra $2 million for fuel, said Don Haydon, the district's chief facilities and operations officer.

"The amount that's not covered by the state is absorbed by the local budget," Haydon said.

State education officials also want the Senate to include more money for teacher bonuses, saying it could cost $107 million to fund bonuses next school year. The Senate proposal puts $71 million in the budget for bonuses.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee is hearing the $21.4 billion budget bill Tuesday. The first of two required floor votes are expected Wednesday.

Senate leaders said Tuesday that the recommendations likely would change in the coming days as a final proposal is hammered out.

"We're dealing with probably the greatest unknown in the budget we have – fuel. So, we've done as well as we thought we could in our monies to move around and do other programs that maybe weren't funded or funded enough, in our opinion," said Sen. A.B. Swindell, D-Nash.


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