Politics & Government

NC budget leaves hundreds of teacher jobs uncertain

Teacher assistants like Celine Nina of Collinswood Language Academy provide individual help to young students.
Teacher assistants like Celine Nina of Collinswood Language Academy provide individual help to young students. Staff Photographer

Hundreds of North Carolina elementary school teachers face an uncertain future now that the state budget is expected to block school districts from paying teachers with money set aside for teacher assistants.

The $21.74 billion state budget that could be adopted Friday by the General Assembly maintains full funding for teacher assistants but takes away the flexibility school districts had to use that money for other purposes. Now school districts around the state are looking for ways to compensate the hundreds of teachers whom they’d been paying with teacher assistant dollars.

Last school year, Wake County diverted $4.2 million for teachers from state teacher-assistant funding. Statewide, districts diverted $42 million to pay for teachers out of $376 million in teacher-assistant funding.

David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, said Wednesday that the district doesn’t anticipate laying off any of the roughly 80 teachers being paid out of teacher-assistant dollars. Neter said they’re also working to avoid moving any of those teachers to different schools. He said the administration doesn’t want to upend teachers and students who’ve been together in class for a month or more.

The administration does not want to disrupt students’ and teachers’ focus on learning and teaching, Neter said.

Funding for teacher assistants was one of the contentious issues that delayed adoption of the state budget past the June 30 deadline. The original Senate budget would have cut 5,000 teacher assistants to instead hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, but the House wanted to fund assistants at last year’s level.

As part of a budget compromise reached Friday, House leaders agreed to the Senate’s demands on limits on how teacher-assistant dollars could be spent.

School districts have been lobbying lawmakers against the new restrictions. Leanne Winner, chief lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, noted that the budget restriction would be applied to teachers who are already working.

“We’ve already begun the school year for districts who’ve used the money to hire teachers in the younger grades,” Winner said. “It would be a very upsetting and difficult transfer to all of a sudden lose that teacher.”

Sen. Harry Brown, the chamber’s chief budget writer, said he doesn’t think there’s much basis for the argument that the funding restriction will result in some teaching positions being cut. He said school systems have so much flexibility with the rest of their budget to keep those teachers on.

“All those LEAs (local education authorities) in that case have a lot of fund balance they can adjust with,” Brown said. “So that’s an argument, but I don’t think there’s much basis for that argument.”

Neter said most of those reserves that Brown is talking about are already committed to items that districts need to purchase and just can’t be reallocated.

“Even though there’s a number from an accounting perspective on a book that says there’s $80 million, that doesn’t mean there’s $80 million of funding available to spend,” Neter said. “It sounds good, but when you look at the mechanics just under the covers, you realize it’s a bit of a fallacy to say that we’ve got $80 million that we’re sitting on that we can spend.”

Neter said the district’s finance staff is working on producing a plan for the school board on how they will cope with the new restriction placed on the teacher-assistant dollars.

Wake spends most of the $39 million it gets for teacher assistants for those positions, Neter said. But he said there are times when schools need to use some of the money for other purposes.

Neter noted that Partnership Elementary School in Raleigh converts most of its teacher assistant dollars to hire extra teachers to cope with the extremely small classrooms in the building.

At Apex Elementary School, Principal Keith Faison said he converted two teacher-assistant positions this school year to keep Darren Geraci on as the full-time technology teacher. In addition to teaching classes, Faison said, Geraci also maintains the school’s technology and trains other teachers to use it.

With the new budget restrictions coming, Faison worries that he’ll lose Geraci. While he could hire two more teacher assistants, Faison said, the new hires wouldn’t be able to do as much as Geraci now does.

“If their budget goes through, we’ll lose a teacher,” Faison said. “We’ll lose an educational position and be greatly affected.”

Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed to this report.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Funding for extra teachers

Last school year, school districts converted $48.7 million meant for teacher assistants to other purposes, with $42.3 million used to hire teachers. Below are the districts that diverted the most money from TAs to teachers.

District

Amount

Charlotte-Mecklenburg

$13.5 million

Wake County

$4.2 million

Cabarrus County

$3.9 million

Cumberland County

$3.2 million

Winston-Salem/Forsyth

$3.1 million

Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction

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