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State takes a bite out of local school budget

By Susan Dickson
Staff Writer

This story is the second in a series about the real and potential effects to Orange County residents of state budget cuts. This week, we look at the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system.

In a county that was built around the first state university, public education – and with it, the two public school systems – has become one of Orange County’s most prized assets.

Drawing families from around the country, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is widely regarded as one of the nation’s best school systems. Over the past few years, the district has dealt with a number of financial blows at the local, state and federal levels, though the county’s continued support for public education has helped to maintain the schools’ status.

This year, however, things got a bit dicey, with a $5.75 million reduction in state funding and a deeply divided state legislature keeping much of the schools’ fate in limbo.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education adopted the district’s 2011-12 operating budget last week, following the passage of the final state budget – which includes a 5.8 percent cut to K-12 education to help close a nearly $2.5 billion shortfall.

The district had been asked to make $2.5 million in discretionary reductions in the previous state budget, which staff agreed to again make in the 2011-12 budget. To account for the additional reduction requirements, the district eliminated mentor pay ($83,187) and reduced funding for classroom materials ($188,000) and textbooks ($617,916).

Though the state identified other areas for reductions, including salaries and benefits, transportation, instructional supplies and equipment and school technology, the board was able to avoid these cuts by appropriating fund balance, basically the district’s savings account. Overall, the budget includes the use of $2.6 million of fund balance, about $2.1 million to cover the gap in state funding and $500,000 to make up the local funding difference.

“We’ve looked for any possible way to avoid having to make reductions to the classroom,” said Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services with CHCCS. “By taking those steps in addition to two years of reductions previous to this, we’ve run out of places to look to help protect the classroom.”

In the classroom
So what do these numbers mean for the kids?

The schools haven’t gotten new textbooks in three years – only replacement books or books for an increase in students.

A reduction in funding for classroom supplies will be felt by both students and teachers.

“Those are resources that go directly to classrooms to support kids,” LoFrese said.

The state also eliminated funding for professional development, which is important for new teachers as well as experienced teachers as new programs and mandates are implemented, he said.

“We’ve had to look at other ways to fund those programs,” LoFrese said. “When I look at where we ended up this budget year, by and large the way that we maintained the programs that we’ve held so dear is by allocating fund balance.”

However, those funds are not money the district can rely on, he added.

“There will be less fund balance available to use,” he said. “When we start building our budget – the process starts in October – we have a $2.6 million hole to begin with.”

Pre-kindergarten in limbo
Last week, Gov. Beverly Perdue ordered that the pre-kindergarten program, previously known as More at Four, be available for all eligible at-risk children, regardless of whether their families can pay fees included for most families in the recently passed state budget. The budget cut pre-kindergarten spending by 20 percent – $200,000 for CHCCS – and required most families to pay fees for the program.

“What the governor has stated is that we need to be providing services – the state needs to provide services for all kids who need it,” LoFrese said. “The funding isn’t there right now, so we’re waiting to see how this all develops.”

Following Perdue’s mandate, the legislature has not yet resolved how it will fund the program.

“The other factor for us is we don’t have any space,” LoFrese said, adding that elementary school classrooms are already crowded.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro has about 80 kids on the waiting list for the pre-kindergarten program, which would equate to about seven more pre-kindergarten classrooms.

Board Chair Jamezetta Bedford said that the board had already determined that it would use local dollars and fund balance to continue the pre-kindergarten program without charging fees to families who could not afford them.

“Our district said we’re not going to send any of those kids away,” she said. “That’s just one of the biggest, most effective ways for closing the achievement gaps.”

“The Republicans think of 3- and 4-year-old education as day care,” she added. “We think of it as education.”

What’s next?
Because local funding represents about 50 percent of the school district’s budget – more than in most North Carolina counties – CHCCS has been more insulated than others from deep state cuts. The district’s fund balance has also helped prevent cuts, but there won’t always be fund balance to use.

“We’ll have it again one more year after this,” Bedford said.

After the fund balance runs out and if funding isn’t available at the state and local levels, cuts will have to be made to the classroom, she said, and secondary students will have less elective choice and class sizes will grow.

“This is worldwide, and we are going to have to think a little differently,” Bedford said.

“The hope is that the economy improves, that funding is restored at the state level, that the local economy improves and that perhaps our revenues will increase to offset that one-time fund-balance allocation,” LoFrese said.

However, any funding increase is likely to go toward salaries, he said.

“Staff members in public education have gone three years without a salary increase, and their benefits are decreasing,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the General Assembly to provide some cost-of-living increase for staff.”

“It may be three, four, five years before we see a turnaround,” LoFrese added. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

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