May 28, 2014

Teaching assistants, state Department of Justice take big hits in Senate budget

The Senate is set Thursday to begin debate on its budget proposal, which calls for substantial teacher raises while cutting teaching assistants.

The state Senate’s proposed $21.2 billion budget makes cuts throughout state agencies while funding a big teacher pay increase and raises for state employees.

State funds for teaching assistants will be cut nearly in half, by $233.1 million, in the year beginning July 1. The state will fund teaching assistants for kindergarten and first-grade classes only. Teaching assistants, who are used in kindergarten through third grade, have been continuously pared in recent years.

The budget proposes to cut the state Department of Public Instruction by 30 percent, or $15 million.

The budget taps a reserve for future benefit needs of state workers for all its $56.4 million, and cuts $22 million from the State Employee Health Plan contribution.

State Treasurer Janet Cowell told legislators last week that the planned premium increase wasn’t necessary, so the money wasn’t needed.

Earlier Wednesday, Senate Republicans gathered for a news conference where Senate leader Phil Berger announced their plan for teacher raises worth nearly $470 million.

“Because of difficult but responsible decisions made by legislative Republicans, more North Carolinians are going to work today than ever before, and our children will soon attend public schools with the highest-paid teachers in state history,” Berger said in a statement accompanying the budget outline.

“This budget keeps our state on solid financial ground so it can continue to grow and prosper,” said Berger, an Eden Republican.

The budget includes $1,000 salary and benefits increases for other state employees.

The budget adds nearly $200 million to Medicaid, the government insurance program for poor children and their parents, the elderly, blind and disabled. The program, where budget shortfalls are chronic, would receive more than $3.8 billion in state funds. The federal government funds about two-thirds of the cost. While Medicaid gains, other divisions in the state Department of Health and Human Services would lose.

The budget cuts $29.8 million from the state Mental Health Division and $15.8 million from Public Health. About $16 million of the mental health reduction is because Broughton Hospital in Morganton isn’t going to open as scheduled and doesn’t need to be equipped.

Justice loses, Public Safety gains

The Department of Justice, run by Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, would take a big hit.

According to a budget outline released after 8 p.m. Wednesday, the state Justice Department would be cut by more than half, from $82.3 million to $34 million, with 638 jobs lost. Some of those positions would move to the Department of Public Safety, because the Senate has proposed transferring the State Bureau of Investigation to Public Safety, something it tried to do last year. The budget also moves the State Crime Lab to Public Safety.

The Public Safety budget’s increase of $60.6 million is greater than the Justice Department loss.

Cooper, who objects to moving the SBI, has been preparing a run for governor in 2016, when he could potentially challenge Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

“For 75 years an independent SBI has without bias rooted out corruption in the executive and legislative branches,” Cooper said in a statement Wednesday night. “With this move the legislature protects itself and the Governor at the expense of government integrity, and ignores North Carolina law enforcement’s opposition.”

Teachers asked to trade tenure

Senate Republicans praised their teacher pay plan Wednesday morning as the largest increase for teachers in state history.

The salary plan provides for an average increase of 11.2 percent. The full budget was released Wednesday night, and committee debate on the document is scheduled for Thursday.

Teachers would receive the pay raises in exchange for giving up their tenure and longevity pay. Teachers who decide to keep their tenure would receive no pay increase in this budget.

Senate Republicans last year pushed through a law that phases out tenure, but it is facing resistance from teachers and school districts, and is being challenged in court.

Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said tying raises to employment rights was not fair.

“If the Senate thinks it’s a priority to give all teachers an 11 percent pay raise, why don’t they just give the pay raise? Why tie it to taking away a constitutionally protected right?” Ellis said in a statement.

“There is no need to intimidate and silence the voices of teachers by taking away their right to a hearing before termination,” he added.

Low teacher pay has been the focus of political talk for months. Average teacher salaries in the state hit the national median in the mid- to late 2000s. Salaries were frozen during the recession and have been bumping near the bottom of national rankings.

Recruiting new teachers to North Carolina classrooms and keeping those with experience has become a worry.

“This is a significant step in addressing what has been a continuing problem in North Carolina with reference to how we pay our teachers,” Berger said at the morning news conference.

Democrats wary of plan

Legislative Democrats said they were pleased Republicans were acknowledging low teacher pay was a serious issue but were wary about how they planned to pay for the raises.

“It remains to be seen whether this is a realistic proposal or merely a shell game designed only to give Republicans an election year talking point,” House Minority Leader Larry Hall said in a statement. “We look forward to reviewing their proposal and learning how they’re going to pay for it now and in the future.”

Gov. Pat McCrory included a teacher pay plan in his budget that called for more modest increases at a lower cost. In addition to raises, McCrory proposed increases for teachers who take on leadership roles, teach in hard-to-staff schools or teach certain subjects.

A spokesman for McCrory said the governor shared the Senate’s goal to improve education and help teachers but that McCrory’s plan was “broader.”

“The comprehensive Career Pathways for Teachers plan, which is sustainable, fiscally responsible and provides local flexibility, was developed through a process working with and supported by superintendents, teachers and business leaders across the state,” McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis said in a statement.

Asked to compare the Senate plan to McCrory’s, Berger said the Senate plan “makes the full change to the new pay schedule” while the governor’s plan “had that as an aspirational goal.”

The Senate streamlines the 36-step pay schedule for teachers, while McCrory would keep it.

A legislative committee of House members, senators, teachers, and others talked about teacher pay and effectiveness this winter. But legislators leading the committee put forth no recommendations for changes.

Ellen McIntyre, dean at UNC Charlotte’s College of Education and a member of the committee, said she was uncomfortable with the idea that teachers would be asked to trade tenure for raises.

There’s a misperception that tenure protects bad teachers, she said. It would be unfair for teachers who have earned tenure to have to give it up for salary increases.

“I don’t think a teacher should have to make that decision,” McIntyre said.

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