North Carolina’s budget director told the state education agency in October that it should not plan to pay agency salaries with money that was intended to help improve student reading.
But the Department of Public Instruction tried anyway, requesting in January to move more than $2 million from the Excellent Public Schools Act to help compensate for a $2.5 million budget cut.
A Jan. 8 spreadsheet that the agency sent to the state budget office shows DPI job cuts alongside job additions at identical salaries, paid for with Excellent Public Schools Act money.
That act lays out steps to have students reading well by the end of third grade, among other things.
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DPI spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter said in an email Thursday that the department made a new proposal this week. She said that it earlier submitted a proposal that “did shift some positions from one funding source to another, but the submission of this week is intended to replace the earlier submission.”
The state budget office said Thursday evening it had not received a new submission.
The State Board of Education had an extensive discussion Thursday about 20 vacant jobs DPI is eliminating to comply with the budget cut. DPI said in the email that those positions are being cut immediately.
The state board reviewed those cuts after negotiations between DPI and the State Office of Budget and Management, which began last fall at the latest, over how the agency should handle the $2.5 million budget reduction.
In a letter to the budget office Oct. 7, Atkinson suggested some of the additional $3.8 million the legislature had directed to the reading program could be used to cover administrative costs and offset budget reductions. But in a reply Oct. 28, then-budget director Lee Roberts said that was not the legislature’s intent.
Atkinson, a Democrat, has been locked in a dispute with Senate Republicans over how DPI is using money intended to improve literacy. Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, raised the issue this week.
“It’s bad enough we have a Department of Public Instruction with priorities so misplaced that they proposed shifting money intended to help children around our state learn to read to fund Raleigh bureaucrats,” Berger said in a statement Thursday. “But for the State Superintendent to then turn around, deny it, and attempt to cover their tracks is a textbook example of the lengths bloated bureaucracies will go to protect themselves.”
The State Office of Budget and Management must approve DPI’s request. Andrew Heath, who succeeded Roberts as budget director this week, said in a letter to Atkinson dated Thursday that he would not approve the Jan. 8 proposal.
“Offsetting DPI’s flexible reduction with Excellent Public Schools Act funding is inconsistent with the enacted budget, and cannot be approved by this Office,” he wrote.
Atkinson denied this week in interviews and at a legislative committee meeting that DPI was taking money from classrooms to save agency jobs. Questioned by Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Republican, at a legislative committee meeting Tuesday, Atkinson said the money was going to schools.
“You have my assurance that it is the intent of the Department of Public Instruction as well as the State Board that those dollars go to our schools to help improve reading, as well as the nine other provisions that are in the Excellent Schools Act,” she told Barefoot.