Teacher development, struggling schools on chopping block as State Board of Ed implements G.A.-mandated cuts

Teacher development, struggling schools on chopping block as State Board of Ed implements G.A.-mandated cuts

- in Education, Top Story
The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

Members of North Carolina’s State Board of Education passed down $2.5 million in legislative cuts Tuesday, ordering layoffs and operations reductions that are most likely to impact professional development and support services for the state’s poor and low-performing districts.

State officials will need to chop another $737,000 to meet the legislature’s $3.2 million demand, board Chairman Bill Cobey said. Decisions about the location of additional cuts are likely to be made in early August.

“This is sort of like the first big step,” Cobey said. “But just like anytime you’re cutting, the next step, even though the amount is smaller, it may be that much tougher. So there’s a lot of work to still be done.”

Tuesday’s budget decision will eliminate seven filled and eight vacant positions within the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), reducing services from the agency’s school transformation and educator effectiveness divisions.  The vote is also expected to reduce pay for DPI instructional coaches working with state teachers, shifting from 12-month to 10-month contracts.

The additional cuts remaining, Cobey said, are likely to mean more job losses within the agency. “It’s hard to think for me of getting to that number without it affecting one or more employees,” said Cobey.

Over the last decade, DPI has been under intense scrutiny from Republican state lawmakers who suggest the K-12 bureaucracy is wasteful. Although Cobey, a Republican, has disputed that characterization, lawmakers, since 2009, had already slashed more than $19 million from DPI before this year’s reductions.

Citing personnel confidentiality, details about the exact positions and the employees eliminated in this new round of cuts were redacted from DPI documents released publicly Tuesday. But agency reps said they would issue more specifics in early August once all employees have been notified.

Tuesday’s vote also included the reduction of about $865,000 in operating funds for expenditures such as contractual services, employee professional development, travel, supplies and more.

Cobey added that layoffs within the department would be administered “with as much compassion and concern as possible.”

“While this task is never a pleasant one for any department or business, the board in consultation has worked diligently to consider any ramifications of any cuts to the agency,” he said.

Board members were limited in their choices for handing down the legislative funding cuts. General Assembly members forbade cuts from GOP-backed initiatives such as the teacher prep program Teach for America and the Innovative School District, formerly called the Achievement School District, which could allow for-profit charter operators to take over several low-performing schools in the coming years.

State officials said they considered federal and state-mandated programs and services, as well as the agency’s ability to deliver services, when they prepped options for filling in the General Assembly cuts.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, a Republican elected last November, has been silent on the cuts and he did not speak during the public portion of Tuesday’s conference call session, but Cobey has said his office has been sharing proposals for the cuts with board members.

Lawmakers ordered the board to stay away from additional funds allocated to create up to 10 new positions in the department reporting directly to Johnson. The move came with Johnson, the board and the legislature mired in a court battle over the powers of the superintendent’s office.

It’s made for a rare bit of intra-party tension from a Republican-controlled state board and the legislature.

State Board of Education member Eric Davis acknowledged Tuesday that the cuts would limit services to districts and schools across the state.

“My hope in future years is that our superintendent, in partnership with the N.C. General Assembly, will prevent adverse impacts to our students through budget cuts,” said Davis.

The agency will follow a state-proffered Reduction in Force (RIF) policy, with plans to terminate employment with the affected positions by September.

Reaction from local school district leaders was swift following Tuesday’s vote, with some pointing out that the move will be felt most in small, poor and rural districts without the tax base to fill in the loss of state services.

Pamela Thomas, chairwoman of the Onslow County Schools Board of Education in eastern North Carolina, said the cuts will be “detrimental.”

“I’m afraid our legislators have a personal vendetta against public education,” said Thomas. “One even remarked to me that the (N.C. Association of Educators) had never supported him when he was running, which is why I think that. There is an effort to take away from public education.”

Thomas acknowledged her district, which is represented by Sen. Harry Brown, an influential budget writer and the chamber’s Republican majority leader, has benefitted from state services in DPI over the years. This year’s cuts will harm her district, she said.

“Harry is a real good friend of mine,” Thomas said. “He’s really good when he talks to us, but he, like all of these legislators, are caught up in the politics of it so that they can’t always act in the best interest of the people they serve. And that’s unfortunate.”

Nevertheless, Thomas said her district will look to take advantage of the state’s Restart model for low-performing schools, which provides for charter-like flexibility, this year.

Cumberland County Schools has also partnered with DPI to assist more than a dozen low-performing schools in the district, which serves the Fayetteville area.

Ruben Reyes, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources, said Tuesday that, despite a lack of specifics about positions, the day’s vote would likely impact his district.

“With less people, you’re going to be unable to offer the same level of support,” said Reyes. “From a purely mathematical standpoint, districts will not get the individualized support we’ve grown accustomed to in the past.”

The loss of support would be a key loss for North Carolina’s struggling schools, he added.

DPI “provides direction from the state level that helps all schools understand what resources are available and ensures that all of the low-performing schools in all of North Carolina are working off the same sheet of music.”