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Budget Limbo Means Teachers May Not See Raises Until 2016; Schools Cope With Uncertainty

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There are two dates that loom large for parents, teachers, students and administrators in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. The first is August 14, the self-imposed deadline for the General Assembly to agree on a state budget. The second, just 10 days later, is the first day of school.

Without a set budget, schools have a hard time planning for the academic year and they may have to start cutting programs now just in case. As for the budget negotiations, they're not going so well. At least not yet.

BUDGET 

    The House and Senate have two very different views on how to spend taxpayer money. They rely on a conference committee to hammer out the differences. But for a conference committee to work the conferees have to meet. And so far that hasn’t happened.

"Between the two houses the only groups that have met are the senior budget writers," says Craig Horn. The republican representative from Union County is one those senior budget writers.

"We have to settle two major pieces before we can get into the weeds of the budget."

Those two pieces are big. First, there's Medicaid. Both the House and Senate want to overhaul the health insurance system for the poor and disabled but in different ways. And second, there are changes to tax rates paid companies and individuals. The House wants to cut tax rates only after revenue benchmarks are met. The Senate wants to cut them with or without those triggers.

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Credit Courtesy of the NCGA
Representative Craig Horn (R) is one of the senior budget writers now negotiating with the Senate.

Until those differences are resolved, lawmakers won’t know how much money is available for everything else. But Horn says they are making progress. "I’m optimistic we will get those pieces settled in the next 7 to 10 days. Then it should take 10 to 14 days after that to get a budget settled."

This timeline however, would mean lawmakers don’t meet their August 14th deadline. They could still be negotiating when classes begin late August. It also means they’ll need another continuing resolution to keep the state funded.

"I think our continuing resolution will have to spell out that the budget as of last year is going to have to be the budget for the first half of the coming year," says Horn who adds that likely means no raises for teachers during that time.

SCHOOLS

School districts across the state are in limbo just a few weeks before school starts.  The house budget doesn’t mean big changes for the district, but the senate budget does. It calls for laying off teacher assistants to help pay for more teachers. All this uncertainty has plenty of people downright exasperated. 

“We are getting ready to open our classroom doors, welcome our teachers back, our students back and we don’t have a clue yet, if we’re going to have to [lay off] 500 teacher assistants or try to hire almost 140 new teachers,” said CMS Board Vice-Chair Tim Morgan at this week’s board meeting. 

“I have a smile on my face because this makes me laugh, it’s so ridiculous,” said board member Rhonda Lennon.

CMS Superintendent Ann Clark told the board it would be near impossible to hire another 138 teachers this late in the year, let alone after the school year starts. 

“We’re going to lose out on potentially having teacher assistants at the levels we need and be unable to hire teachers to reduce our class size,” said Clark.

The challenge isn’t just hiring teachers this late in the year. It’s also coming up with classrooms for them, since the budget mandates smaller class sizes. CMS would have to re-locate or buy dozens of mobile classrooms to accommodate them. 

Driver’s education is another bone of contention. The House budget would continue to subsidize those classes, so students wouldn’t pay more than $65. The senate budget cuts all funding. Many districts have already suspended drivers education classes and CMS may have to do the same.

“We’re simply not in a position to continue that after August 14th, until we know we can charge or whether it’s fully funded,” said Clark.   

At this point, Clark said the district is warning teacher assistants about their precarious position, preparing human resources for last minute hiring, and hoping state lawmakers will give them more direction soon.