Meyer: House Budget “Doesn’t Go Far Enough”

The North Carolina House has passed a budget proposal tweaking the two-year spending plan passed during the long legislative session last year.

Now, it’s the North Carolina Senate’s turn to produce a budget. From there work will begin in committee meetings to nail down the final product that will make its way to the desk of Governor Pat McCrory.

This year’s House budget passed through the chamber with more bipartisan support than we have been used to in recent years.

“Because they felt they wanted to get behind the state employees and teacher raises that were included in the budget and because they believed that the raises that the House offered are going to be more generous than what the Senate is likely to offer,” local representative Graig Meyer reasoned as to why more Democrats supported this year’s budget proposal.

Meyer, however, was one of 12 Democrats who voted against the budget. He said the proposal, even with the salary bumps, “doesn’t go far enough toward what we really need to improve the state’s economy and take care of our state employees.”

Meyer said “there was a lot more that could’ve been done” in terms of raises and investments in other areas, including mental health care, but the House chose instead to put the remaining dollars into a reserve fund. That reserve fund would be at a record $1.4 billion with the additional $300 million from this year’s surplus, according to chief House budget writer Nelson Dollar.

“My biggest concern about the budget was that the Republicans put in place an arbitrary cap on spending before even deciding what we needed to spend money on,” Meyer said referring to the agreement from early May that the budget proposals would not exceed $22.225 billion.

Meyer added the tax regimen put in place by Republicans in recent years is not providing the state with enough funds to “pay for things that we need to do for North Carolina.”

Meyer offered an amendment during the budget process to reinstate the estate tax on estates worth more than $5.4 million that would have impacted “fewer than 100 North Carolinians,” the legislator said, while bringing in $60 million in tax revenue. That amendment failed.

Meyer said, while he had issues with the budget, there were some areas he was pleased with. He said he was happy to see state employees and teachers get a raise, while adding “I wish it was more.” He also said he was happy to see a greater investment in mental health care.

The House budget proposal also called for the removal of the cap on light-rail spending, which could revive hopes for the Orange-Durham Light Rail project.

Meyer said that provision would likely come down to being used as a bargaining chip during the process to finalize a compromise between the House and Senate on a final budget.

Listen to the entire interview with Meyer below:

Teacher Pay Focus of County Budget Discussion

School funding, specifically teacher pay, was the focus of Thursday’s public hearing on next year’s Orange County budget.

The Board of Commissioners meeting was held at the Southern Human Services Center in Chapel Hill.

Teachers, staff and many students asked the Board of Commissioners to fully fund the budget for Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools. The school district has decided to increase teacher pay $4.5 million next year, regardless of the county’s final budget. The school district has said it will use money from other areas to fund the increase if necessary.

Supporters of the schools held red plates to identify themselves.

Last week, the board heard public comment in Hillsborough where many spoke on behalf of the Orange County Schools.

County Commissioner Barry Jacobs said while county allocates a budget for the school districts it is the school districts who decided how to spend it.

“So for those of you who are saying that we should do X or we should do Y, that’s what the school board decides and I think sometimes people misconstrue what our role is,” said Jacobs.

But county commissioners do base their budget on formal requests from the school districts.

Lynn Lehmann is the executive director of the public school foundation, a fundraising organization for CHCCS. She said the budget request from the school district was necessary.

“There is a teacher pay problem and you can help with that, you have the means to help if you choose,” said Lehmann. “This year’s budget recommendations from the school districts take great steps to remedy the problem and we are here to ask that you fund it as requested.”

Even if the county doesn’t completely fund the CHCCS budget, this year’s budget does open up some funds for the school district. The county is going to begin covering the cost of the school’s nurses, securities guards and other health and security contracts. This would represent a $1.2 million appropriation for CHCCS and around $250,000 for Orange County Schools.

Additionally, the county will now pay the per pupil cost for students who leave the public schools for charter schools, which the school districts previously had to cover.

Brain Pomerantz, the father of a kindergartner at McDougle Elementary School, said he didn’t want the district to have to cut corners to fund the teacher pay increase. Pomerantz said the one of the main reason people accept higher taxes in Chapel Hill is the schools.

“You need people who are moving in to move here because of the schools. You need them to be willing to pay high taxes because of the schools,” said Pomerantz. “I am willing to pay the high taxes because of the schools.”

The Board of County Commissioners will adopt a final budget on June 24.

President’s New Proposal Could Help Orange County Kids

President Obama announced Wednesday he plans for ask Congress for $12 billion over the next ten years to help feed school kids during the summer.

For low-income families, a free or reduced-price lunch is 5 meals a week for a child, but during the summer families can struggle to make up for those meals.

Michael Reinke, director of the Inter-Faith Council, said this is a problem for the almost 3,000 kids on free or reduced lunch in Orange County.

“Schools are one of the main sources of nutrition for those 3,000 children then that source of nutrition is suddenly closed,” said Reinke.

Obama’s new proposal would give families $45 per child to buy food at grocery stores, opposed to current summer programs that usually require a child to come to a central location for a meal.

“Having that EBT card, being able to find that kind of assistance means that we can get one step closer to everybody in Orange County having enough good food to eat,” said Reinke.

According to Reinke, 14 percent of our community is food insecure, meaning at least one family member gives up a meal to make sure other family members have enough food.

“I know that when I’m hungry it makes it a lot harder to concentrate on my job, it makes it a lot harder for me to do a good job,” said Reinke. “If we can get everyone in our community to get enough good food to eat it means we can start being a more productive community. It means that people are one step closer to becoming self-sufficient.”

The poverty rate in Orange County is 17.8 percent, slightly higher than the state average, but these issues can seem out of sight in our community.

“We do a good job hiding poverty in our community and it means that often times people are unaware of the degree and the depth of the problems that people are facing,” said Reinke.

If passed, the summer food program would begin in 2017.

Thousands of NC Teacher Assistants in Limbo

The General Assembly passed a stop-gap spending measure Tuesday. The bill keeps the government funded until mid-August while the chambers grapple over the final budget. But the measure does nothing to ease the concerns of  8,500 teacher assistants whose jobs are now in limbo.

North Carolina teacher assistant Melinda Zarate has spent the last several summers on edge.

“It’s just very nerve-wracking,” Zarate told reporters. “Imagine not knowing whether you were going to have a job in a couple months. And yeah, that happens in business too. But for teacher assistants, this happens every single year.”

The Legislature has made frequent cuts to teacher assistant positions since the 2008 recession. This year, despite a budget surplus, the Senate’s budget proposes axing another 8,500 teacher assistants. That would leave schools with less than a third of the teacher assistants they had before the recession. Those cuts don’t sit well with Lisa Caley, a parent of a child with special learning needs.

“Our public schools today are focused on educating every student, and TAs are working to provide the individualized instruction to make that happen,” Caley said. “That means they’re assisting with kids who need remediation, with students who are on grade level and students who are above grade level, to make sure that lessons are differentiated to meet all students’ needs.”

Teacher assistants and their advocates argue their instruction is needed in today’s classrooms.

“Things have become so individualized in our schools, that we don’t do a lot of whole-class instruction—teachers standing in front of a group of kids just delivering trying to fill their heads,” Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella said. “It’s more about breaking kids up into small collaborative groups.”

Senators who support the cuts say reducing the number of teacher assistants will allow the state to hire more teachers and raise teachers’ starting salaries. The House’s budget also proposes raising teacher salaries, but it does not cut assistants. Todd LoFrese, Assistant Superintendent for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, says his district is eagerly awaiting a final budget.

“We’re going to have to take a good look as we develop our budgets if teacher assistants are reduced at the state level again: What are our options? Do we have any options, because those are really big numbers that they’re talking about making in the Senate budget,” LoFrese said.

The two chambers have until August 14 before stop-gap funding expires. In the meantime, thousands of teacher assistants can only guess whether they’ll return to the classroom in the fall.

Can Achievement Gap be Closed with SRO Funding?

For decades, area schools have been battling an achievement gap problem.

At Thursday’s Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board meeting, some said the 2015-16 budget should put more money into narrowing achievement gaps between groups of students – for example between white and black students.

Greg McElveen, chair of the NAACP Education Committee, spoke during public comment periods to suggest ways the district could reallocate funds to help students who lag in academic performance. He said the board should look at how the district funds school resource officers (SROs).

“We believe that given these tight times . . . perhaps we don’t need SROs in middle school,” said McElveen.

He said violence is rare in area middle schools, and rather than increasing payments for SRO services by $100,000 as proposed, the district could find other ways to ensure the safety of students.

School officials will look at data on how SROs are used in middle schools and whether SROs need to be in school buildings all day.

Board member Michelle Brownstein expressed concern about removing SROs from schools.

“We have set up what we’re doing now, in terms of crisis management, with them being there,” said Brownstein. “So if they’re not there, we have to make sure our principals, our admin and our teachers have what they need” to keep students safe.

According to Board Chair Mike Kelley, only half of the Chapel Hill and Carrboro schools have SROs.

School officials said the district is using strategies from Max Thompson, project director of Learning-Focused, to help increase student achievement.

Along with other specific requests, McElveen said the board should study initiatives that have been effective at supporting under-served students, such as supplemental math instruction. Then the district should implement those effective programs widely.

You can view the superintendent’s recommended budget here.

Upcoming budget calendar dates from CHCCS:

April 16    – Budget discussion and approval of budget to be submitted to the county
April 20    – Submit Board’s budget request to the county
April 28    – Joint meeting of school boards for budget presentations to the county

CHCCS Board Examines 2015-16 Recommended Budget

At Tuesday’s meeting, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board looked at the superintendent’s recommended local budget for 2015-16.

This initial proposed budget totals $73 million. Once board members hash out the details, they will request funds from Orange County commissioners. The proposed budget will require a 3 cent property tax increase.

School officials are calculating a local budget while taking into account the state budget, the final version of which is yet to be determined.

The state projects enrollment decreasing by 150 students next year. This means the district will lose at least half a million dollars in funding.

The proposed local budget for next year is about $4 million more than the current year’s budget. Federal and state mandates account for some of this difference. For example, under Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposal, minimum teacher pay would rise 6 percent to $35,000.

“Generally the state provides funding for classroom teachers and a few instructional support type positions, like a guidance councilor or media specialist,” said Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese in an interview after the meeting.

Local dollars will have to meet these minimum salary mandates for other types of school employees.

“We have other positions in our schools: literacy coaches, math coaches, and technology facilitators,” said LoFrese. “Positions like that – that aren’t funded by the state, but we feel are critical for our success – we fund locally.”

School officials will likely ask county commissioners to help pay for more charter school students and home-schooled children who enroll in North Carolina’s first virtual charter schools.

Here are upcoming budget calendar dates from CHCCS:

March 19 – Public Hearing and budget work session
April 16    – Budget discussion and approval of budget to be submitted to the County
April 20    – Submit Board’s budget request to County
April 28    – Joint meeting of school boards for budget presentations to County

UNC System President Ross Responds to Governor’s Budget

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Highlights of Gov. Pat McCrory’s $21.5 billion spending plan released Thursday for the 2015-16 fiscal year. Unless otherwise noted, the dollars amounts are for the 2015-16 year only. For spending changes, figures are for amount spent or saved compared to what was projected or needed to keep operating at current levels.


— locate $111 million to increase the floor for early-career teacher salaries from $33,000 to $35,000 and to give experienced-based raises.

— hire 1,400 new teachers to cover expected public school enrollment growth of more than 17,300 students next fall.

— give $15 million over next two years to new endowment designed to award teachers additional pay for improved student performance.

— increase textbook and instructional materials funding by $35 million, with more flexibility to local districts on how to spend it.

— reduce the Department of Public Instruction budget by 10 percent, or $4.1 million.

— save $3 million in community college system to reflect decreased enrollment by 1.6 percent.

— increase community college tuition by $4 per credit hour, collecting $16.1 million.

— give $49.3 million to University of North Carolina system to meet projected 1.7 percent enrollment growth.

— provide $8 million in operating funds for East Carolina University’s medical school.

— implement 2 percent efficiencies within the UNC system, or $49.9 million in savings.


— locate $18 million for operations, modernization and maintenance of NC FAST and NC TRACKS computer programs.

— expand permanently the number of slots for North Carolina Pre-K program for 4-year-olds to 26,800, at a cost of $2.3 million.

— spend $5.3 million over two years to modernize Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

— develop electronic death records system, at a cost of $1.9 million over two years.

— increase foster care funds by $4.5 million to reflect higher caseload volume.

— require $287 million in additional Medicaid funds to reflect higher enrollment and patient costs.

— lay groundwork for potential Accountable Care Organizations designed to treat Medicaid patients, costing $1.2 million.

— reduce personal services contracts by $1.2 million.

— spend $16.6 million to help open new Broughton mental hospital in Broughton in 2016.

— eliminate $8.5 million carry-over of liabilities from mental health facilities.


— give $10 million more to a new film and TV production grant program that replaced a tax credit program that was allowed to expire last year.

— allocate $33.5 million more to the Job Development Investment Grant, Job Maintenance and Capital Development Fund and One North Carolina Small Business economic incentives programs.

— restore the state’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit for repairing old buildings. The credit was allowed to expire last year.

— extend various current tax credits or refunds related to research and development, renewable energy for non-solar projects and for jet fuel.

— calculates road building revenues based on 35-cent per gallon motor fuels tax.


— provide $16 million over two years to restore court funding to pay for jurors, interpreters, expert witnesses and equipment.

— increase payments for private indigent defense lawyers by $3.2 million.

— create six lab technician positions at State Crime Laboratory for $251,000 to help reduce criminal case backlog.

— give 5 percent pay raises to 700 state troopers, at a cost of $1.8 million.

— replace 75 aging State Bureau of Investigation and Alcohol Law Enforcement vehicles for $1.9 million.

— begin process of reclassifying correctional officers and raise pay, with salaries increasing beginning in mid-2016.

— create 181 positions to improve mental health services for prisons, at a cost of $6.4 million.


— give $19.6 million from Highway Fund for general road maintenance reserve.

— complete modernization of Division of Motor Vehicles statewide automated driver license system.

— provide $58 million more to carry out state Department of Transportation’s new 10-year road-building plan.


— locate 2 percent cut in Governor’s Office, or $110,000.

— add portfolio manager’s position in State Treasurer’s Office, costing $176,000.

— create new Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Information Technology from existing programs.

— shift state parks, Museum of Natural Sciences, state aquariums and N.C. Zoological Park from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the Department of Cultural Resources.

— privatize state motor pool for short-term vehicle rental services.


— place another $47 million in the state’s rainy day reserve fund, increasing it to $698 million.

— earmark $175 million over two years in a Medicaid risk reserve that could be tapped to cover potential shortfalls.

— set aside $82 million over two years for salary fund for pay increases in hard-to-find and hard-to-retain positions.

— increase reserve for health insurance plan for public employee by $34 million.

— McCrory will propose two bonds: one for transportation projects and a second for government building repairs and renovations. Each one will range from $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion.

UNC System President Tom Ross issued the following statement regarding Governor McCrory’s proposed budget:

We appreciate Governor McCrory’s recognition of the value of UNC’s research efforts and the significant intellectual property created by our world-class faculty, as evidenced by his support of our UNC Strategic Directions efforts to commercialize university research. We are also pleased that the Governor’s proposed budget funds growth in student enrollment and much-needed emergency support for East Carolina University’s medical school and Elizabeth City State University.
The University of North Carolina has long been key to our State’s economic vitality and way of life.  A recently released report shows that UNC contributes $27.9 billion in added value to the state’s economy and offers an impressive $3.90 return for every $1 invested by the taxpayers. The UNC system has worked successfully to become more efficient through efforts dating back to before the start of the recession. We are disappointed to see an additional cut of 2% proposed and no salary raises for faculty and staff as the state’s economy continues to recover and grow.  We are also concerned that the Governor’s budget proposes an $18-million reduction in funds available to our campuses to build and expand private partnerships. To continue to improve North Carolina’s economic position, attract new industry, and create needed new jobs, North Carolina must continue to maintain and invest in our strong public university system.
We are committed to working with the Governor and the General Assembly throughout the budget process to meet state needs and address key University priorities.

Town Council Looks For Creative Solutions To Chapel Hill’s Challenges

Chapel Hill leaders are looking for innovative solutions to address some of the major challenges facing the town.

At last weekend’s planning retreat, the Town Council tried a different tactic to brainstorm new ways to tackle transit funding, town infrastructure and the need for affordable housing.

“I think one of the key takeaways from this retreat is that nothing was off the table,” says George Cianciolo, one of the council members who helped plan the event.

The all-day meeting was modeled after the free-ranging discussions that typified the Chapel Hill 2020 process. Council members met in small groups to trade ideas, a departure from the formal presentations that are the hallmark of local government.

Cianciolo says when it comes to the need for more affordable housing, town leaders are looking to balance social goals with market forces.

The plan to partner with the nonprofit DHIC to build affordable rentals on town-owned land is one example of how public-private partnerships can help the town leverage its assets.

“We’re looking at more public-private partnerships,” says Cianciolo. “We’ve been looking at some of our other assets and we talked about potentially that we could buy some land for another public-private partnership. Another [idea] was perhaps trading some of our assets to a developer who would be willing to do affordable housing.”

Chapel Hill Transit is facing a funding crunch even as demand for service continues to rise. One possible solution might be to charge riders for new routes or hours while keeping the core service fare-free.

“What would happen if we were to have fare cards that were used after, say, seven or eight o’clock at night?” asked Cianciolo. “Would that allow us to provide some service to some of the areas that are not served now?”

The need to replace the police station, repave roads and improve infrastructure also loomed large as a challenge for town leaders. Items like a new teen center rank high as priorities.

“Everyone agreed that a teen center downtown would not only be nice to have, but it would be important to have, because that’s a vulnerable population,” says Cianciolo. “And so that’s something that would be high on a list.”

The planning retreat was intended as a way to get a wide range of options on the table for future discussion. Ultimately, Cianciolo says to accomplish the many goals of the 2020 plan, Chapel Hill will need some novel ideas.

“You have a lot of things you’d like to do, and how many we can get to is partly going to be dependent on how creative we can get.”

No formal decisions were made at the retreat, but some of the concepts could be explored further during the upcoming budget negotiations this spring.

Carrboro Town Leaders Ready for First Meeting of 2015

The Board of Alderman is setting up for a very busy 2015 with their first meeting of the new year, on Tuesday night. There are several large agenda items for leaders of the Town of Carrboro.

Mayor Lydia Lavelle says she is expecting to see new developments concerning the Martin Luther King Jr. Park Master Plan.

“I do think citizens that are interested in the Martin Luther King Jr. Park will be interested in seeing what kinds of proposals are being made,” she says. “A couple of concept designs are going to be coming forward to us, after some community gatherings where we received a lot of input.”

The board will also be presented with information regarding the state of the transit system and suggestions to increase sustainability going forward.

“Every year [the transit system] is a huge project to grapple our hands around,” she says. “It’s one of the hallmarks of our community, but it is one that continues to increase in costs.”

The presentation is expected to be very similar to the arrangement brought before the Chapel Hill Town Council, last week.

The transit system is a large budget item, according to Mayor Lavelle, but she says there are several other key areas in building a new budget this year.

She says certain town costs are guaranteed to increase.

“We always have rising health care costs,” she says. “It’s always a given that, whatever our line item is for our employees and health care, that’s always going to go up a little.”

Lavelle says it will be important to see how much revenue the town is able to bring in during tax collection.

“In general, property taxes have stayed the same or gotten better,” she says. “With the hotel and different things, our commercial tax base should look pretty good.”

The mayor adds town leaders typically offer a conservative sales tax estimate, which could lead to additional revenue on top of projections.

The Board of Alderman meeting will be held at the Carrboro Town Hall beginning at 7:30 Tuesday evening and is open to the public.

With Cuts Possibly Looming, UNC Centers State Their Cases

Representatives from various UNC-Chapel Hill centers and institutes made presentations to the UNC Board of Governors Thursday in order to retain their state funding in the face of budget cuts – or just to remain alive.

Amidst a crowded room at the Spangler Center Thursday morning, the Board listened to speakers like Christi Hurt of the UNC Women’s Center, who spoke about having only one staffer who works directly with sexual assault victims.

“We truly do need a whole lot more,” she told Board Chair John Fennebresque (who asked, “Don’t you need a hundred?”). “The rest of the Women’s Center staff is trained to provide support, and we also do the work of the prevention efforts throughout the whole center…so the program itself isn’t isolated in one person, but she’s (the only one who is) distinctly trained to provide one-on-one advocacy support.”

The weeklong meetings arose after the state legislature paved the way for $15 million in cuts in last year’s budget.

Another group facing elimination is the Sonya Haynes Center for Black Culture. Director Joseph Jordan reminded the board that the center was created in 1988 from $9 million raised exclusively in private funds.

“It was created at the urging of concerned students, faculty, community and alumni as a center for the arts and cultures of African-Americans and as a site for campus and community service programming,” Jordan said. “In the 26 years since its creation, it has grown to become a major and unique resource for the university and the regional communities.”

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt reiterated that 51 percent of state funding has already been cut since 2009, which has prompted the university to become more aggressive in fundraising.

She said centers like the ones being discussed Thursday were crucial to those fundraising efforts.

“We’re getting ready to go to a multi-billion-dollar campaign – and one of the best ways you do that (is) to raise money for a center, not an office,” she told the Board. “The Stone Center is a vehicle for raising funds – and we are just in the process in developing that whole strategy, and they will be getting support, as will the Women’s Center…

“(These) are big draws for people that like to give to a named place.”

Groups under review may be terminated, lose state funding or could continue operating as it is. Thirty-four groups are under review at 11 UNC system universities.

Numerous students were also in attendance at Thursday’s meeting, carrying signs and wearing black tape over their mouths to protest the threat of funding cuts.