The annual, avoidable school budget mess

For many of us, the calendar’s turn to August means our attention turns to planning for the upcoming school year. But for school administrators across North Carolina, such planning comes with a perennial and avoidable challenge: They don’t know how much money lawmakers are giving them.

Most every year, school districts wait until at least mid summer for the N.C. House and Senate to hash out how much of the state budget will go toward K-12 education – and how that money will be applied. The state accounts for the biggest share of funding for schools, which by necessity started their planning months ago.

“The government that requires us to guess what they’re going to do doesn’t make their decision until after we’ve made our guesses,” CMS board member Eric Davis told the editorial board this week. “It’s very dysfunctional.”

It also has a tangible impact on N.C. classrooms. Because districts don’t know how much money they’ll get – and because state lawmakers like to micromanage districts to the point of dictating staffing levels – schools don’t know exactly what positions they can fill until right before the school year.

This year, for example, the N.C. Senate budget would allow Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to hire 138 additional K-3 teachers, according to the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms. The N.C. House budget allows for no additional hires.

The uncertainty impacts schools in at least two critical ways. First, districts are left scrambling for teachers right before the school year begins, which is far from the ideal way to fill positions important to N.C. children. Also, other states get an earlier shot at the best young educators graduating from N.C. universities.

Used to be, North Carolina wasn’t hurt as much by the budget delay. Young teachers wanted to work in our schools. Salaries were good. Our state was attractive.

Now, we’re not so much worth the wait, especially if another state shows up in April with a real job offer. Same goes for veteran teachers, who are getting plucked away by states who can offer a competitive paycheck and the comfort of not having to worry about the whims of N.C. legislators.

The solution is simple. N.C. lawmakers need to finish their budget earlier. Other states, including our neighbor Virginia, do so. If that’s too hard for our lawmakers, they should craft a continuing resolution or another mechanism that allows them to commit earlier to school funding.

That, however, would take a commitment to the welfare of public schools.

Instead this week, the N.C. Senate passed a bill that weakened school districts even more by putting a five-year moratorium on local school boards filing actions challenging the money they get from county boards of commissioners.

“Schools are totally dependent on county commissions,” said Davis, “and now they want to take away one of the few recourses we have when we’re being treated unfairly.”

The bill heads to the House, where lawmakers are still working with the Senate to finalize the state budget. Meanwhile, school begins in 24 days.