As state lawmakers wrangle over a budget agreement, nearly 100 teaching assistants in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system are in limbo, waiting to find out if they’ll still have jobs when school starts.
Arasi Adkins is the Human Resources Director for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. She says 79 local teaching assistant positions will remain unfilled until state budget negotiations are complete.
“Their livelihood is hanging in the balance,” says Adkins. “They’re waiting to be re-hired. We’re kind of holding on, so this is extremely difficult for them [and] it’s extremely difficult for us in terms of staffing. It’s been a very challenging summer.”
Last year, in response to state budget cuts, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools hired new teaching assistants on one year contracts that the district paid for using reserve funds. Now, school officials say the district has run out of reserve funds to cover the shortfall, and they’re waiting to see what, if anything, the state will do to help pay for teaching assistants.
“Because there’s such a huge variance in the House version of the budget and the Senate version of the budget, it really is difficult to do anything other that wait,” says Adkins.
Negotiations between the state House and Senate are stalled as legislators debate competing spending plans. The House version calls for a five or six percent raise for teachers while the Senate wants to push that up to 11 percent, but pay for those raises by cutting teaching assistants.
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board is waiting until July 17 to adopt its local budget for next year. In anticipation of further cuts to state funding the board has identified two levels of potential budget cuts.
The first tier would bring the budget in line with the House plan. It would require $850,000 worth of cuts, including the loss of 4.5 gifted education specialist positions.
Depending on the final budget, a second round of cuts could be necessary. That would mean eliminating the district’s service learning coordinator, cutting media assistants to part-time, losing three and a half more gifted education positions, and shifting some custodial staff to lower-paid contract work.
But some worry that a third round of cuts might be needed if something similar to the Senate budget is passed. If that happens, school officials acknowledge teaching assistant positions will be on the chopping block.
“We have identified two different tiers worth of cuts that don’t involve teaching assistant reductions at all, so that’s what we’re really hoping for. Beyond that we really haven’t discussed the number of teaching assistant positions that would be cut if we have to go to that,” says Adkins
State lawmakers on Friday canceled a planned negotiation session, prompting speculation that the General Assembly could walk away without a new spending plan. The state is currently operating on a two-year budget passed in 2013, so the lack of a deal wouldn’t cause a government shutdown, but Adkins says the uncertainty affects what the district can offer to entice new hires.
Most disheartening, she says, is the recent discussion in the Senate questioning the benefits of teaching assistants in the classroom.
“I mean, it’s July. If they wanted to bring up research about the value of teaching assistants, I really believe they should have spent more time last year visiting classrooms, talking to teachers, talking to their constituents about the value of teaching assistants,” says Adkins.”I’d really argue that anybody who questions the value of a teacher assistant should be required to do substitute teaching in an elementary classroom.”
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board meets on Thursday to discuss the budget, but whether or not the board will have a budget to approve remains to be seen. In the meantime, many local teaching assistants have no choice but to wait and see.