Governor, lawmakers argue over funding proposal
In order to increase school funding in Union County and across North Carolina, Gov. Bev Perdue wants to add three quarters of a cent to the state sales tax. Perdue announced her proposal earlier this week, in a press release.
“Education has always been part of the fabric of who we are as a people in North Carolina and it’s the key to our future,” Perdue said in the release. “We must stop the deep and unnecessary cuts that are going on in North Carolina’s schools.”
Perdue’s plan would see the sales tax go up in counties from 6.75 to 7.5 cents. Last year, the Republican majority in the General Assembly allowed a three year old sales tax increase to expire, rather than extend it again. If approved, Perdue said the money would be set aside and earmarked for education.
The governor pointed to a recent study by the North Carolina Association of School Administrators that found the state is currently 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding.
“The legislature’s budget has hurt education at all levels, from pre-k all the way through higher education,” Perdue said. “And has led to higher class sizes and the loss of thousands of teacher and teacher assistant positions.”
The plan seems similar to one that Orange County Rep. Bill Faison, a Democrat, proposed late last year. Last year, Faison called for Perdue to step aside in the coming election and allow him to run for the seat. One difference is that Faison’s plan would raise the sales tax to 7.45 percent, while Perdue’s plan climbs to 7.5 percent. Also, Faison’s plan called for the money to be set aside for both education and Medicaid.
Republican lawmakers, including District 68 Rep. Craig Horn, say they would have an easier time considering the idea, if they thought the money would end up in the classroom.
“This legislature was handed a fiscal mess,” Horn said. “The state had been borrowing from the highway fund, from retirement funds and from lottery funds to prop up a budget that could not be sustained. The administration knows that. Now they decry that the schools are broken and state services are broken.”
Since 2009, the Union County school system has absorbed a total of $11.5 million in discretionary cuts imposed by the General Assembly, including $3.2 million in this budget cycle. The governor’s proposed budget wasn’t that different than what finally passed, asking for $50 million more.
“Again the governor has proposed to throw money at a problem rather than leadership, and, she again is playing politics with our teachers and our kids,” Horn said. “She knows perfectly well that no teaching positions were cut from the state budget this past year and she also knows that the budget passed over her veto was within 1/2 of one percent of the budget proposal that she sent to us in the first place.”
Horn and District 103 Rep. Bill Brawley from Matthews ask the governor to point out where state lawmakers cut funding for teacher salaries in the current year’s budget.
“We voted to fully fund teachers and teachers aids,” Horn said. “We voted to fund liability insurance for teachers and we voted to pay for school buses. We also voted to eliminate non-federally mandated testing. Let teachers teach was our guidepost.”
The cuts, both representatives said, were supposed to come from administrative positions.
While the teachers and teacher’s assistants were fully funded, Union County did cut four assistant principals, reduced in hours the equivalent of 14 non-instructional support positions; reduced career and technical education support and technology by $800,000; reduced transportation and classroom materials and supplies by more than a million dollars.
“It’s not about the money, it’s what you do with the money,” Brawley said. “We have schools in Mecklenburg County spending $19,000 a year per pupil. And for that, we can’t even graduate 75 percent of students.”
Brawley referred to the current year’s statistics from Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, which showed 73.9 percent of students graduated high school in 2010-11. The district ranks below the state average, which is 77.7 percent, numbers Brawley said weren’t good enough.
“If three out of every four hamburgers at McDonald’s was edible, would you think you were getting a good deal?” Brawley asked.
He pointed to Union County, which has a lower per pupil spending average, but higher graduation rates and test scores on average. Union County students finished almost 43 points higher than the state average on the SAT, at 1518, while Mecklenburg students averaged a score of 1482. If more money solved the problems, then why didn’t Mecklenburg have higher scores, Brawley asked.
The problem, Brawley argued, wasn’t money but how districts spend it. In session for the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 18, Brawley and other lawmakers heard from state departments on a number of subjects. Members of the North Carolina Department of Transportation explained how they found an extra $5 million and used it for building renovations, rather than on roads.
“I could point them to parts of Matthews and Mint Hill that could use the road money,” Brawley said. “We could spend all $5 million fixing potholes and repaving. That’s the problem. Instead of cutting where we asked, departments like NCDOT and Public Instruction moved the money around, so all the administrators kept their jobs.”
Perdue said she would bring the three quarter cent sales tax hike up when the General Assemby reconvenes in the spring.