Schools, local governments stuck in holding pattern awaiting governor’s changes
As Union County agencies prepare for anticipated budget cuts, sweeping state changes could have an impact on everything from school budgets to the way public safety organizations communicate with each other. Gov. Bev Perdue unveiled the proposal Thursday, Dec. 9, detailing massive restructuring throughout the state.
The National Conference on State Legislatures estimates North Carolina’s budget deficit at $3.8 billion, approximately 20 percent of the current year’s budget. Previous projections had placed the figure at $1 billion. To absorb that hit, Perdue released a plan to consolidate departments, trim staff and install hiring freezes.
“State government must seize this opportunity to become a more streamlined, focused enterprise,” Perdue said. “We must be leaner, more nimble, more responsive to citizens and less bureaucratic as we focus our limited resources on our core missions.”
Hiring freezes would be across the board in all state agencies, many of which would be consolidated under the plan. The departments of Correction, Crime Control, Juvenile Justice and Public Safety would all merge into one, with significant job losses. Officials from the governor’s office said Thursday details surrounding that merger had not been determined, such as how local law enforcement would coordinate with the state from now on.
Details were also sketchy about what offices would be impacted by the freezes, which Perdue said would impact all ‘non-critical’ positions currently open.
Additionally, she proposed merging the Department of Commerce and the Employment Security Commission, eliminate the state’s Information Technology office and farm out computer services to a private company, along with purchasing. Current estimates project the project would save over ten million dollars in state revenue.
“My priorities are simple: jobs for our people, investments in our children through a strong education system and setting government straight.”
Perdue’s office said details would be released in early 2011 when the governor completes her budget proposal.
School system stuck in holding
With the state government short on details as to specific budget cut numbers, Union County Public Schools is already preparing for the worst. Superintendent Ed Davis outlined current plans to the board during its Tuesday, Dec. 7 meeting, explaining the district needs to continue planning, in order to stay on top of developments.
“The factors are still the same I outlined in August,” Davis told the board, highlighting that the loss of federal stimulus dollars and expected state cuts will hit hard.
“That money is gone and is not going to return,” Davis said.
In addition to federal funding, the Union County school district would suffer $14.3 million in state cuts, with the elimination of 120 teacher and 20 instructional-support positions. The district will decide where to make the cuts.
Additionally, class sizes in most Union County schools would increase, if the state budget is cut as projected. The size of all classes from kindergarten through third grade would increase by one student, while grades four through six would increase by two students. Ninth grade classes, according to the state projections, are supposed to increase by 1.5 students.
“These reductions are merely projections, there’s nothing concrete,” Davis said. “The question remains if those (reductions) are set in stone,” Davis said, adding that he and staff members hope for some flexibility in how the budget reductions are absorbed.
The move is just the latest in a series of financial hits Union County Public Schools has taken in recent months. In July, the state sliced funding the district got from the lottery for this fiscal year. Union County had $5.9 million in lottery money allocated in the governor’s original version of the current year’s budget. The General Assembly slashed the allocation, and Union’s portion dropped to $3.1 million. With a larger state deficit projected this year, the district expects larger cuts, possibly greater than those already outlined.
To plan and prepare, Davis and his staff have a two part plan in place. Phase I has been going on since the district delivered their final 2010-11 school budget in August, with staff members researching data and holding discussions with the budget development committee.
“We’ve been laying the groundwork, talking about some possibilities,” Davis said.
That phase would wrap up in January, with UCPS Chief Financial Officer Dan Karpinski giving a budget basics presentation at that month’s Board of Education meeting.
“I think it’s important we define our goals as we work through this budget process,” Davis said, defining the district’s plan as one to develop a budget that protects the core mission of the school system, while providing adequate support to accomplish the mission.
“That sounds like a no-brainer, (something) everybody should agree we should do,” Davis said. “The key is if we’re not careful we’ll have situations to undermine support for the mission.”
That’s the juggling act UCPS has to handle, Davis said, funding teachers but also providing dollars for their support staff as well. As part of that plan, Davis and Board Chairman Dean Arp will travel to Raleigh once a month to meet with state lawmakers about the district’s needs. Prior to that, the entire school board will meet with lawmakers representing Union County Thursday, Dec. 16.