CHAPEL HILL – As your kids prepare to go back to school on Monday, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School officials say they’re preparing for another tough budget cycle in the coming year–and they say it’s not going to be pretty.
“If additional funding doesn’t come in from Raleigh, we’d need to find the equivalent of about 30 teacher positions within our current operations,” says CHCCS assistant superintendent Todd Lofrese. “(That) would likely mean loss of positions, loss of programs, perhaps loss of jobs.”
School officials are already sounding the alarm about 2014 because they say the district’s fund balance has dried up. CHCCS has used that balance for several years to help offset the effects of state-level budget cuts–but Lofrese says that isn’t an option anymore.
“We’ve reduced our budget by $8 million, and we’ve absorbed over $4 million in cost increases over the past five years,” he says. “It would’ve been even worse if we hadn’t utilized our fund balance to help buffer these reductions–(but) we’ve now used all of our available fund balance.”
And so, heading into the budget development process for 2014-15, Lofrese says “we’re beginning with what we estimate to be a $2.2 million hole.”
That $2.2 million represents the money the district pulled out of the fund balance this year to avoid having to cut teacher positions. Without it, Lofrese says they may have to cut 30 positions in 2014. Teacher assistant positions could also be at risk: Lofrese says the district lost state funding for 25 TAs, and managed to preserve those positions in 2013 only by dipping into its own pocket. (Should that come to pass, Lofrese says the district would seek to cut vacant positions first—but layoffs are not entirely off the table.)
And Lofrese says the situation would be even worse, were it not for the strong support the district receives from county government.
“We’re very fortunate (that) we live and work in a community that has strong support for public education,” he says. “Our county commissioners continue to demonstrate that by providing the district with $4 million in additional funding this year.”
Lofrese says that funding enabled the district to fully staff the new Northside Elementary School while preserving existing programs–and even managing to reduce class sizes in fourth and fifth grade. Future county-level funding will also allow the district to preserve a few of the 40 teacher positions cut at the state level, even without the fund balance.
But the specter of state-level cuts still looms—and while Republicans in the General Assembly insist that this year’s budget actually increased funding for K-12 education, Lofrese says that simply wasn’t the case in Chapel Hill-Carrboro.
“Even after accounting for the elimination of the discretionary reduction, our district received less money from the state this year than we did last year, despite our enrollment increase,” he says. “I know there’s a lot out there in the media about whether public schools are getting more money this year or less money this year–we received less state money this year.”
(Other districts did see an increase in state funding, but Lofrese says even that increase wasn’t enough to keep up with the growth in the number of students.)
The effects of the budget cuts aren’t only felt in the loss of positions. Teachers in North Carolina have received only one small raise in the last five years, and this year’s budget also cuts pay increases for teachers with master’s degrees—and as a result, Lofrese says districts across the state are finding it harder to recruit and retain quality teachers.
That includes Chapel Hill-Carrboro.
“Just a few weeks ago we lost a great math teacher to Kentucky,” Lofrese says. “That teacher’s making $10,000 more in Kentucky than they would have made here, on the North Carolina salary schedule. We have a great local supplement, (but) despite our local supplement they’re making $6,000 more in Kentucky than they would have if they’d joined our district.
“That teacher would have had to work in North Carolina for 16 years to make the same amount of money they’re making in Kentucky this year.”
And in spite of the slowly improving economy, Lofrese says he doesn’t see the school funding situation getting better in the future.
“I don’t see the tenor changing anytime soon,” he says, “so we’re planning that budgets are only going to get worse at the state level.”
Still, as schools across town prepare to reopen on Monday–and Northside Elementary prepares to open for the first time–Lofrese says there’s still much to be grateful for.
“We’re excited to welcome kids back and to begin that whole process of teaching and learning that starts on Monday,” he says. “Monday’s a great day for a lot of folks across our community–especially the little ones.”
Monday marks the first day of school for CHCCS; the budget development process for 2014-15 begins in about a month.