by Josh Lanier
WEDDINGTON – Union County Schools will lose nearly all of its teacher assistants next year after the school board unanimously voted to release more than 350 of them to cover a $9.6 million budget shortfall. More than 50 teaching positions will also be cut to save cash.
At a Tuesday, April 3, school board meeting at Antioch Elementary School, Superintendent Ed Davis laid out a “grim” outlook for the budget, saying cuts to the classroom was the only option.
A number of teachers and parents, however, said the layoffs were premature and unfair because the county and the state should have to pony up more cash to save jobs in the high-performing school district.
“We’ve already cut custodial and clerical and maintenance (in recent years),” Davis said after the meeting. “We’ve cut just about everywhere we could except transportation, which we can’t cut because of the increase in students. We’re left with nowhere else to cut but the classroom.”
Davis told the board cutting teacher assistants was the best option. All 30 elementary school principals agreed to the plan as well as a budget subcommittee. Class sizes would be unaffected, but classrooms will undoubtedly feel the loss. Teaching assistants spend much of their time working one-on-one with students, allowing teachers time to work on their lesson plans.
All kindergarten through third grade teacher assistants will be released on July 1, but assistants at Title I schools and in exceptional children programs, which are required by a federal mandate, will not be cut, Davis said. The district also will not fight any claims for unemployment benefits made by teacher assistants released next school year, he added.
All 53 Union County Schools will share in a $4.5 million windfall from the cuts and that money could be spent to rehire some of those assistants on a part-time or full-time basis. Teacher assistants will also get first priority at substitute teaching, the board said.
The budget crunch hit especially hard this year because money from the federal EduJobs program, which pumped $7.6 million last year into the district for teaching jobs, has dried up. That’s coupled with an additional $2 million discretionary cut from the state and no increase in county funding.
The county contributes about $79 million to the district and hasn’t increased that amount for several years, school board members said.
A number of teachers and parents said the county should contribute more money to cover the cutbacks, especially since it received $54 million last year for leasing out its hospital in Monroe to Carolina Healthcare System. The county will also receive a $6.1 million payment each year from the hospital with a two percent increase in that figure every five years.
“The number one asset in Union County is our schools,” Todd Haynes, a parent told the board. “… Please go to the Union County board and ask them to cover (the $10 million shortfall). Please protect our schools.”
A number of school board members said they wished the county would hand over more money to the district, but no serious discussions between the boards have taken place, Davis said.
“It’s always a slippery slope when asking the county to cover state cutbacks,” he said. “It’s something we’re interested in discussing, but we first have to decide how much we’re willing to ask for.”
State Rep. Craig Horn met with teachers at Sardis Elementary Wednesday and fielded questions from faculty after observing them throughout the day.
One thing he learned, he said, was the district’s reliance on new technologies like Smart Boards, which are electronic, virtual chalkboards. He said the money on those technologies right now would be better spent on keeping teachers in the classroom.
“We’re putting all this money into smart boards when we need to be putting (it) into smart teachers,” he told the crowd of about 50 faculty members. “Sure, (the Smart Boards) are cool, but without teachers to operate them, well, who cares?”
Union County schools rank fifth in the state in graduation rates, but 107 out of 115 school districts in overall funding. Horn said that figure shows the quality of instruction at the schools, but also the entire system’s “misplaced priorities.”