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State & National

Senate slashes DPI; state superintendent silent
 
Published Friday, May 19, 2017
by Billy Ball, The Policy Watch

North Carolina’s chief public school administrator may be silent on Senate budget cuts to North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction, but the leader of the state’s top school board says the proposal has the potential to deal major harm to poor and low-performing school districts.

“There’s no question about that,” State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey told Policy Watch. “A 25 percent cut, which I can’t believe will be the result of this process, would cut into very essential services for particularly the rural and poor counties.”

Cobey is referring to the Senate budget’s 25 percent cut in operations funds for the Department of Public Instruction, a loss of more than $26 million over two years that, strangely, has produced no public reaction from the leader of the department.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, a Republican who took office in January, has not responded to multiple Policy Watch inquiries on the matter, even as state lawmakers discuss a severe funding reduction for the agency charged with overseeing the state’s public schools.

Cobey expressed some surprise at the lack of reaction from Johnson’s office. “He should be very concerned, too,” Cobey said. “Because he’s the guy that manages the agency.”

The cuts may be most impactful in poor counties because much of the agency’s outreach focuses on professional development and intervention in low-performing districts.

“I sure hope the proposed cut to the agency is scaled back to a much lower percentage,” Cobey said. “Because the money that we have in the agency is for delivering services to the school districts and the charter schools. If those services are very important to them, I would hope and also believe that after the House and Senate looks more carefully that they will come up with a much smaller number.”

Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan, K-12 policy and research group, agreed with Cobey’s assessment.

“Unfortunately, cuts at the Department of Public Instruction and, frankly, at the central offices for our school systems, have been a staple for our Senate budgets in recent years,” he said. “It seems to be an easy talking point about faceless bureaucrats and waste instead of talking about the services that these dedicated educators provide. DPI provides a great deal of support for rural schools systems that are poor and often struggling school systems.”

The criticism from Cobey is particularly remarkable in North Carolina’s politically polarized climate. Cobey is an ex-GOP congressman and former state Republican party chair appointed to the State Board of Education in 2013 by former Gov. Pat McCrory, although he’s clashed publicly with GOP leadership in the legislature in recent years.

Today, his board is mired in a lawsuit over the constitutionality of a December vote by the legislature to grant more budgetary and hiring powers to Johnson. The reduction in operations funding for DPI comes on top of $25 million in cuts to central office administration for local districts over the two years of the biennial budget. That’s about a 10 percent cut in 2017-18 and a nearly 16 percent cut in 2018-19.

Lawmakers also moved to eliminate four positions reporting to the state board, including a legislative director’s post board members filled just weeks ago. It’s unclear how the department would weather the lost funding at this time. DPI officials have had little time to respond to the proposed budget, which was released around midnight Wednesday, just hours before hastily-convened Senate committees were asked to vote on the 361-page document.

Some lawmakers complained that they didn’t know the most intricate details of the budget proposal they were voting on this week. The plan was developed behind closed doors by Senate Republican leadership, and while it includes long-promised raises for teachers and principals, the budget has spurred a rising chorus of critics among public school advocates in the days since its release.

Leaders with the N.C. Association of Educators, which lobbies for teachers in Raleigh, blasted Republican leadership in the General Assembly over what they describe as insufficient funding for public schools. They point out the state’s per-pupil spending and national ranking actually declined from 42nd to 43rd in this year’s report from the nonpartisan National Education Association, a leading barometer for school funding.

NCAE President Mark Jewell criticized lawmakers again, hours after senators held a 3 a.m. vote to approve the $22.9 billion spending package.

“The Senate budget shortchanges students by making little investment in resources, it shortchanges our most experienced educators for the second year in a row with no raise but skyrocketing health care costs, and it makes recruiting educators even more difficult by denying them health care when they retire,” Jewell said. “Instead of investing in schools, Senate Republicans continue to insist on big tax giveaways to corporations and millionaires.”

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