CHCCS School Board Cuts Custodial, Gifted Specialist and TA Positions

Members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education expressed anger toward the Republican leadership of the North Carolina General Assembly Thursday night, before voting five-to-zero to approve a budget that cuts 22 teacher assistant positions.

“This is the first time in the 10-and-a-half years that I’ve been on the Board that there is significant job loss,” said CHCCS Board of Education Chair Jamezetta Bedford. “And also, some of our classes will not be taught.”

CHCCS Board of Education Chair Jamezetta Bedford did not hide her unhappiness regarding the budget she was about to vote for, and neither did her four voting colleagues at Thursday night’s Lincoln Center meeting.

“It’s an outrage that this is completely self-inflicted,” said Board member Mia Burroughs. “The state government reduced their amount of money they had to spend, with unnecessary tax reductions.”

Board member Mike Kelley made similar comments.

“I think the leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly are taking this state in the wrong direction,” he said, accusing those legislators of “shenanigans.”

Two school board members – James Barrett and Michelle Brownstein – were absent. So it was up to the remaining five to vote for cuts that included what Bedford called “the least evil choice” for trying to deal with a $911,000 budget shortfall.

With classes starting August 25th, the vote came just about down to the wire after the state legislature finally passed its budget a couple of weeks ago, in a drawn-out summer session that had even Republicans from the House squabbling with Republicans in the Senate.

In its $21 billion budget, the General Assembly moved $800,000 out of funding for teacher assistants, and will use that money to pay for more teachers.

For Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools, that means cutting 22 teacher assistants in grades 4 and 5 from its budget.

Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Todd LoFrese said that while the state budget would allow Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools to shift some money back into hiring TAs if so desired, the legislature slipped in some additional rules that would have resulted in eight more teacher losses than the school system could handle.

LoFrese also poked holes in what he called the “rosy” picture of long-overdue teacher raises touted by legislative leaders.

Under the General Assembly plan, teachers with less than 10 years of experience could get raises as high as 18 percent. But teachers with 30 years of experience would get raises of .03 percent.

“Some teachers may get an additional six thousand dollars next year,” said LoFrese. “Other teachers may only get an additional 150 dollars.”

To lessen the pain for teachers on the low end of that deal, the CHCCS budget includes a one-time three-percent bonus.

Four-and-a-half gifted specialist positions will be cut in the upcoming school year, and some custodial positions will be transferred to contract work.

As bad as this all seems, Bedford said she fears more for what a school budget might look like next year.

“Depending on what the General Assembly does, it could be worse next year – far worse,” she said. “Because this is an election year. This is what they do to us.”

CHCCS Board of Education Approves Signing Bonuses; Meeting Ends With Discord

Thursday night’s meeting of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education was short, but it wasn’t sweet.

Even though the Board unanimously passed a couple of resolutions, there was a general sour mood pervading the Lincoln Center meeting room, thanks to some unpleasant budget realities that are forcing divisive choices, and pushing too many teachers to resign.

“We’re losing teachers to other industries, to other districts, to private schools,” said Assistant Superintendent for Support Services for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Todd LoFrese. “Other districts offer a slightly higher supplemental percentage than we do.”

LoFrese made the case at Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting for reinstating signing bonuses as a recruitment tool for teachers.

The school district once offered signing bonuses, but discontinued them in 2009-10, due to the economic downturn.

LoFrese urged the Board to reinstate signing bonuses of $1,500 to newly hired teachers that are fully licensed in specific areas.

There are only about five weeks until the first day of school, and the district needs to fill a lot of teacher vacancies between now and then.

The problem is low teacher pay. It’s causing teachers in the CHCCS system to resign at an alarming rate.

Ten have resigned in the past two weeks, and they specialized in the areas of exceptional children, science and math. Those positions are particularly difficult to fill.

The lack of incentive is making it hard to recruit, said LoFrese.

“They’re weighing their options,” he said. “They’re shopping districts and shopping offers. And so, for the past few weeks, we’ve had 16 offers declined. We’ve had accepted offers accepted, and then later declined. And oftentimes when we’re calling teachers and presenting an offer to them, they just say they can’t commit.”

The problem is exacerbated by the state legislature’s inability, so far, to agree on a budget. Last summer, Governor Pat McCrory signed a budget bill into law that eliminated automatic raises for teachers that received a master’s degree, so that incentive is gone, too.

“We did have a success story, but it kind of paints the picture of what we’re dealing with,” said Lofrese. “We hired a secondary-level science teacher – with nine years of experience and a master’s degree – from Mississippi. And we hired that person, and that person is going to have to take a $5,000 pay cut from what they’re making in Mississippi to work in Chapel Hill.”

LoFrese added that, without local supplements, the newly hired teacher would have faced a $9,000 pay cut.

According to a report from the National Education Association, North Carolina ranked 46th out of all 50 states plus the District Columbia for average teacher salaries in the 2013-14 school year. Mississippi ranked 50th.

LoFrese noted that if it’s this hard to attract teachers from Mississippi, then imagine recruiting teachers from other states.

The resolution to reinstate signing bonuses passed unanimously, as did a resolution to approve a contract with Toshiba to provide copier and printer products and services to the district.

But the meeting ended on sour note when Board of Education Chair Jamezetta Bedford admonished Board member James Barrett for providing the public what she called “a sliver of truth out of context” regarding a recommendation to cut 15 part-time custodial jobs as part of a transition to contract services.

That measure is recommended by the CHCCS administration if a second tier in a three-tier system of identified reduction options is deemed necessary, depending on how the state budget looks.

Bedford said that because Barrett’s comments about the situation made the rounds to the media, churches, and the OrangePolitics blog, she wrote a letter to the Chapel Hill News, in an effort to answer angry responses from people who view the proposed measure as targeting low-paid employees.

The confrontation between Barrett and Bedford was precipitated by Barrett pressing LoFrese to provide him a breakdown in savings, based on the figure provided by the administration: $125,000 in the first year, and $275,000 per year when the transition is complete.

“I think the public needs to know what the truth is about the numbers,” argued Barrett.

“Well, I found it to be very disrespectful to myself and the board of colleagues, and to the superintendent,” said Bedford. “I thought it did not follow what’s best for the board in operations, and it undermined the public support for our schools.”

The meeting was adjourned soon after that. It lasted less than 40 minutes.

The next meeting of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is scheduled for August 14, but a special meeting could be added before then, if the North Carolina General Assembly passes a state budget.

CHCCS Board of Education Forced to Postpone Budget Decisions

The Chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education says that finalizing a school budget is not on the agenda for Thursday night’s meeting at Lincoln Center.

That’s because the Board of Education is still waiting for the N.C. General Assembly to come up its own budget.

Until recently, Board of Education Chair Jamezetta Bedford expected to go into Thursday night’s meeting ready to vote on a final school budget for 2014-15.

But without a state budget to go by, the school board can only wait, and hope that the Republican-controlled House and Senate in Raleigh can work out differences in time for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system to make the appropriate tough decisions.

The first day of school is August 25, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system is effectively paralyzed when it comes to hiring. The situation has prevented CHCCS from offering new contracts to nearly 100 teacher assistants who are waiting to hear back from the school system about next year.

CHCCS has devised three layers of budget reductions, which, especially at the second and third tiers, anticipate worst-case scenarios for state education cuts.

“Tier one cuts have been implemented,” said Bedford. “So the different reductions – not doing the study for counseling, for example, reductions in the central office, the half-time gifted specialist positions – those have been effectively implemented.”

In the second tier, more gifted-specialist positions are eliminated, and some custodial staff would be shifted to contract work at lower pay. The third tier is especially painful, because it would mean the loss of teacher assistant jobs.

Countering what she called recent “misinformation” on the internet, Bedford wrote a column for the Chapel Hill News this week, in which she addressed some of the angry local reaction to the custodial plan, which would utilize workers who make about $2 less per hour than staff custodians.

Local bloggers and their commenters have expressed disappointment in CHCCS, suggesting the school system is targeting some of its lowest-paid employees.

“It’s not what we want to do,” said Bedford. “But when we’re trying to protect the classroom, it was the least of the evil things to do.”

And by protecting the classroom, Bedford said she means that school leaders are trying to protect teacher assistant jobs.

In her Chapel Hill News column, Bedford explained that the school system is considering the elimination of 15 part-time custodial positions, most of whom, according to Bedford, have full-time employment elsewhere.

The planned transition to contract services would save the school system $125,000 next year, said Beford, and $275,000 per year once the transition is complete.

One item on tonight’s meeting agenda is a discussion on whether to extend signing bonuses for certain new hires, at a time when it’s hard to attract and retain teachers because of low pay.

“We’ve had 10 resignations in science and math,” said Bedford. “Four in the past 24 hours. That was as of yesterday, at four o’clock.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education meeting takes place July 17at 7 p.m. at Lincoln Center, located at 750 South Merritt Mill Road in Chapel Hill.

Bedford said that a special meeting to finalize a budget will likely be scheduled for sometime before August 15.

CHCCS Board of Education Considers Tough Cuts

At tonight’s meeting of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education, board members will go over a list of possible reductions totaling $3 million, in order to balance the district’s budget for fiscal year 2014-2015.

Last week the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted to nearly fund the full funding request by Chapel Hil-Carrboro Schools, which meant raising general property taxes by two cents.

But faced with uncertainty about the state budget that will come out of the General Assembly, the Board pf Education is anticipating the need to come up with between $850,000 and $3.8 million to balance the school district’s budget.

The list of possible cuts includes nearly $546,000 from the gifted specialist program, as well as eliminating 22 teacher assistants. In all, there are 61.5 full-time positions up for consideration.

The Board will receive a recommended budget on July 1, and vote to adopt it on July 17.

Tonight’s meeting takes place at 7 p.m. at Lincoln Center in Chapel Hill.

Education Chairs Praise Elements of Proposed House Budget

Chairpersons for both the Orange County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Boards of Education had some words of praise for the North Carolina House of Representatives budget released Tuesday.

“The House budget is silent on the tenure piece of things,” said Orange County Board of Education Chair Donna Coffey. “And so I think that’s probably a great thing.”

Regarding education, the $21 billion budget would offer teachers five percent raises on average, without requiring them to give up tenure.

The proposed Senate budget offers teachers an 11 percent raise, but only if they agree to give up tenure.

According to the House plan, the raises would be funded by expected higher revenues from the North Carolina Education Lottery.

“I think it’s ambitious on the part of the state,” says Coffey. “However, if it means that we’re going to receive more lottery money, then I think that’s a great thing, because in the past, the state has wanted to either use our lottery money for something other than education, or not fully fund the lottery.”

However, Coffey did not embrace the lottery component without reservation.

“However, it’s a short-sighted plan, because I’m not sure that those would be recurring revenues that would fall over into the future years,” says Coffey.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education Chair Jamezetta Bedford was even more dismissive of that idea.

“They think lottery revenues are going to fund this?” says Bedford. “What a joke.”

Still, Bedford says that she, too, is encouraged by some of the things she’s hearing.

“The House proposal for teacher raises is much more reasonable,” says Bedford. “It would help us with recruiting and retention. And the idea that they don’t have to give up their tenure is also very promising.”

Bedford says she’s especially glad that there’s no mention of cutting teachers assistants in the House budget, whereas the Senate budget would cut up to 7,400 teacher assistants statewide.

“We need jobs, and we need them in the classroom,” she says. “They make a big difference in supporting students and activities, so that certified teachers can really teach.”

Coffey had this to say about the Senate budget.

“I think the Senate plan, on many levels, including education, was not a good one.”

WRAL reports that Speaker Thom Tillis expects the House and Senate to work out differences between their two budget plans by the end of next week.

State Funding Cuts Spark Tension

Educators and school administrators all across North Carolina are anxious about the State House budget that’s due this week.

And those in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system are certainly no exceptions.

The State Senate budget that was proposed last week has nerves on edge already, as seen in recent discussions between the district’s Board of Education and the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

“I want to encourage you all to continue to do what you’ve done before in terms of continuing to support public education,” said CHCCS Board of Education member Michelle Brownstein, speaking to the Orange County Board of Commissioners last Thursday night.

“And also, to be as creative as you can, in thinking outside the box about how you can do this, because the implications of this are going to be beyond our school system. I mean, I’m even personally looking at jobs to move my family out of the state.”

Her frank admission that even she was considering leaving North Carolina, in a time of harsh school funding cuts from the state, was made during a plea for the best school funding the county could possibly muster.

Brownstein was accompanied by fellow Board of Education member Mike Kelley.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Board of Education were grappling with the future of the Mandarin dual language program. As soon as they were finished talking to Commissioners, Brownstein and Kelley would drive back to Chapel Hill High School and report to fellow board members.

Kelley and Brownstein were third in line to make their case to Commissioners, after Durham Technical Community College and Orange County Schools.

Brownstein told Commissioners she sympathized with the tough spot they were in – having to make decisions before knowing how badly the approved state budget would slash school funding.

She pointed out that the Board of Education made its $3.8 million request based on Governor Pat McCrory’s proposed budget – far in advance of knowing what the North Carolina Senate would propose last week.

Under that proposal, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools would take a $3.6 million hit, on top of a $2.7-million shortfall. And the school system would lose 57 teacher assistants.

State House Speaker Thom Tillis has indicated that the House budget, due this week, would not cut as many teacher assistants statewide as the Senate’s budget, but he hasn’t elaborated.

“It’s not going to be rosier than what the Senate’s done,” said Brownstein. “We’d be fooling ourselves if we think that it is. What we did is to give you our best estimate before we even knew how horrific they were going to be. And they’re even worse.”

She told Commissioners that the CHCCS budget request was not an expansion – it was simply to maintain the status quo.

Mike Kelley made a plea based on traditional Orange County values.

“State government has reduced taxes for our community,” said Mike Kelly. “And we can choose to spend our own money in a way that is consistent with our values, by raising taxes to support schools, and support education of the 20,000 children in the public school system, and other services that are going to be impacted. And I would encourage you to do that.”

Commissioners were not unsympathetic. Chair Barry Jacobs said that while the county can fill holes, it can’t fill craters. He also suggested that in light of what state government is doing, it may be time to re-assess local tax policies.

But Interim County Manager Michael Talbert said it would be very hard to fill the crater being dug by the General Assembly.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Talbert. “The Senate balanced their budget by eliminating positions, and by moving that money, from taking it from positions to teacher raises. So if our board is going to make that whole, you’re talking a substantial tax increase, well over $300 per pupil, if, in fact, the House comes though with a budget that’s a similar nature.”

Back in April, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education voted to request $3.8 million from the county.

That was after Superintendent Tom Forcella had recommended a budget request of $2.8 million. About half of the $900,000 difference would have gone to cutting gifted specialists in schools.

On Thursday night, Commissioners Mark Dorosin and Earl McKee said they wanted to know why they hadn’t seen a list of CHCCS priorities.

And McKee had this to say about the Board of Education’s funding-request methods this year.

“I’m a bit disappointed that the Board [of Education] did not make clear why they did not follow the superintendent’s recommendation, and instead, asked for a higher level of funding” said McKee, “knowing that the county is not flush, and knowing that the county, in the time that I’ve been on the Board [of Commissioners] has not approved full funding requests.”

Jacobs said he felt like the Board of Education had done a little game-playing this time around, which may end up leaving parents in Chapel Hill and Carrboro with the impression that the county had failed to come up with $6 million for schools.

“They’re going to feel like they were cheated,” said Jacobs. “And they were led to that belief by their school board.”

Afterward, Brownstein and Kelly joined the Board of Education meeting in Chapel Hill at its tail end, after about three hours had been spent there with anxious parents discussing the Mandarin dual language issue.

That’s when Board members received a bleak summary of the Commissioners’ discussion.

“I can’t really make a comment about this discussion,” Brownstein told her fellow Board members. “I feel kind of – no pun intended – shell-shocked. This is going to be an abysmal budget. Period. End of story.”

The Orange County Board of Commissioners adopts its budget on June 17.

CHCCS Board of Education Faces Future of Mandarin Program

A debate between two parental factions about the future of the Mandarin dual language program in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools brought nearly 100 people out to the Board meeting Thursday night at Chapel Hill High.

Tina CoyneSmith came out to Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting to represent the Seawell Elementary Improvement Team:

“It would be irresponsible and grossly inequitable to invest a shrinking budget in a luxury program that benefits a small, high-achieving group without identified need,” she said.

Tim Field, who has three kids in both the traditional and dual-language programs at Glenwood Elementary, raised objections to how the school system engaged the community on the issue.

“Let’s have a real dialogue about what it would take to actually make this a wildly successful program, not a dialogue driven by fear and anxiety about over-inflated program costs,” said Field.

Not even five months after the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education voted 6-1 to expand the Mandarin dual language program at Glenwood Elementary School, the fate of the program — or, at least, its future implementation — is still uncertain in a continuing climate of State cuts to public schools.

Supporters of the program argue that it promotes high achievement, and makes kids more competitive on a global scale.

The opposing side argues that it’s unconscionable to continue to support a program for a small number of students, while it continues to suffer from attrition, and while the jobs of teachers’ assistants are on the chopping block.

Parents and even some kids enrolled in the program made their cases either way for than two hours at the meeting. But there wasn’t much enthusiasm from either side regarding two options being considered by the Board.

Option One is a Mandarin Partial Immersion Magnet, with a focus on developing proficiency in Mandarin Chinese.

The current 50/50 language ratio that requires half the students to be native Mandarin speakers would be relaxed.

Superintendent Tom Forcella pointed out during the meeting that native Mandarin speakers are the main students dropping out of the program in the upper grades, which makes the program harder to sustain.

Under Option One, the program would remain at Glenwood Elementary School, and would require the redistricting of all students on the traditional track.

Option Two would bring Mandarin into the Foreign Language in the Elementary School, or FLES program. That would involve offering Spanish at six schools, French at two schools, and Mandarin at three schools.

Proponents of that option argue that it would return the program to its original intent – to promote Mandarin proficiency, and offer it to a more diverse population.

CHCCS Dual/World Language Coordinator Elaine Watson-Grant made a recommendation between the two options during a presentation at Thursday night’s meeting.

“We believe that it should be accessible to many more students in our districts, not just a few” said Watson-Grant. “The administration proposes Option Two – expanding Mandarin into our FLES program, starting in kindergarten.”

But some Board members, such as Board of Education Chair Jamezetta Bedford, aren’t in favor of bringing Mandarin into FLES.

“The goal of our Mandarin and our Spanish programs that are dual-language or immersion is to become bilingual – to become fluent,” said Bedford. “And FLES – just passing it – that’s never going to get us there.”

Thursday night’s discussion of the Mandarin program was a work session, and no vote was taken on the matter.

Board members, still reeling from further education cuts in the State Senate’s draft budget, agreed that the fate of the Mandarin dual language program will ultimately be determined by Orange County and the General Assembly.

In the meantime, the CHCCS Board needs to determine the lottery ratio system for students enrolling in the Mandarin program in the coming year.

The Board will hear a recommendation on the lottery on June 11.

CHCCS Seeks Boost From BoCC For School Renovations

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school officials plan to ask county commissioners for three quarters of a million dollars to jump start planning for major renovations at three schools.

“We’re recommending that the board consider a request to county commissioners for $750,000 in planning money, to begin the process of designing the projects so that we’re shovel ready if and when the bond referendum occurs,” said Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese.

Administrators are hoping to delay the need for new schools by instead expanding some of the older, smaller schools in the district, but LoFrese told the board the timing of the renovations will be key.

“The intention behind this whole recommendation is to delay new schools,” said LoFrese. “We can only do that if we begin creating capacity now, because the district is going to grow and before you know it we’re going to be at a position where we’re unable to phase projects, unable to move forward with some of these capacity-building recommendations at our elementary schools specifically. It would basically be too late.”

County commissioners have begun discussing a possible bond package to help pay for the multi-million dollar plan, but that may not make it to the ballot until 2016.

The school board voted unanimously on Thursday to request $750,000 from the county to cover planning and design for three projects.

The money would pay for architectural design and preparation to expand Ephesus Elementary and Seawell Elementary, and renovate Lincoln Center to create a preschool facility.

If approved, the money would be an advance from county’s Capital Investment Plan. The school board will discuss the proposal at a joint meeting with county commissioners on April 29.

Smaller Gifted Ed Budget Cuts Still Draw Fire From CHCCS Parents

Parents who thought the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board had backed off plans to make budget cuts to the district’s gifted education program were disappointed Thursday night to find some cuts were still on the table.

“These target AIG program cuts will ultimately bring down our district’s ACT and SAT scores as well as university placement,” said Kim Ehrman, one of eight speakers protesting the newest proposal before the board. “Will you be here to witness the result of your academic cleansing as our district embraces mediocrity?”

The school district faces a $3.6 million dollar shortfall next year. Earlier in the budget process, the school board considered cutting half a million dollars from the gifted specialist program, which would result in the loss of seven and a half full time positions.

In response to a slew of negative feedback from parents, the board last week opted instead to ask county commissioners to cover the entire $3.6 million dollar budget gap.

However, recognizing that county leaders are unlikely to fully fund that request, the school board on Thursday considered a second list of possible budget cuts totaling $821,000. Under this revised scenario, the gifted education program could still face a $214,000 cut, resulting in the loss of three specialists.

Board member Andrew Davidson said the budget represents their best effort during tough times.

“We’re not making these cuts because we want to get rid of these programs or because we have other priorities we want to slide our money towards,” said Davidson. “We’re making them because we have to.”

Once again board members including Mike Kelley sought to focus attention on the actions of the General Assembly.

“What we’re seeing here is an assault on public education,” said Kelley. “I wasn’t necessarily wanting to say that so frankly, but that’s clearly what is happening. Our response to this has to be as a community.”

Kelley called the budget cuts “a shared sacrifice,” and he urged members of the school community to avoid infighting over scarce resources.

The board endorsed the list of proposed cuts, but said the budget negotiation process is not yet complete. The board will present its budget request to county commissioners on April 29.

CHCCS Board Looks at New, Less Painful Ideas for Budget Cuts

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education is looking at a new list of budget reductions, after scrapping a plan to immediately take a big chunk out of the gifted specialist program.

At last week’s meeting, the School Board abandoned a planned $2.9 million budget request to the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

That figure included nearly $910,000 in recommended cuts. More than half of those were from gifted specialists.

Advocates for gifted specialists raised an outcry, and members of the board had their own doubts.

After much deliberation, the school board voted to request $3.8 million from Orange County, without the recommended cuts.

That was done with the understanding that the chances of getting that total amount were very slim.

So plans were made immediately to come up with a new list of reductions, based on consultation with parents and staff from all schools in the district.

At Thursday’s meeting of The Board of Education, members will consider a new list of immediate cuts of around $821,000, plus ideas for future cuts.

A list of recommendations from the office of the Superintendent includes making smaller cuts to gifted specialists; reductions at the Central Office; reductions from North Carolina Virtual Public School; and a cut to start-up funding for Northside Elementary.

The goal is to eventually find $2.2 million in cuts, in order to deal with reductions in state revenue. Big cuts in gifted specialists, as well as teacher assistants, may still be on the horizon.

Thursday’s meeting of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education will be held at 7 p.m. at the Lincoln Center, located at 750 South Merritt Mill Road in Chapel Hill.