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Local leaders say some school priorities aren’t reflected in NC budget proposals | #schoolsaftey

RALEIGH, N.C. — Across the state, county school leaders say they need more money for facilities, employee pay and safety measures.

But state and local funding isn’t rising fast enough for counties to keep up with their needs – despite increases in property taxes, which help bankroll public education. And counties aren’t finding everything they need in bills that are moving through the legislature.

WRAL News spoke with a dozen county leaders on both sides of the political spectrum in central and eastern North Carolina. While some of them agreed with lawmakers on a few education priorities, one proposal drew bipartisan skepticism: a $500 million budget proposal to expand private school tuition assistance to families of all incomes.

Those who favor private school vouchers argue that they enable choices for families. But the most concerted opposition has been less about the question of choice and more about the practical issue of money. Some county leaders said they supported vouchers for lower-income students and the idea of parents being able to choose their children’s school. But almost every local official interviewed for this article said public schools needed the money, too.

North Carolina funds roughly two-thirds of public school systems’ budgets. And public school funding is mostly based on student enrollment; for every student who leaves, the school system loses money to educate them.

Public education advocates and county leaders worry about the funding consequences of the vouchers at a time when they say schools are already underfunded.

Their fixed costs will likely stay the same, or go up, regardless of enrollment. And if an expanded voucher program leads to an exodus of students — and a drop in funding — counties could be forced to cut services or programs, lest they seek to raise taxes to fund shortfalls.

At least 26 school boards in counties represented by both Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly have passed resolutions this year opposing lawmakers’ efforts to expand private school vouchers. The resolutions, which are similar to versions pushed by Gov. Roy Cooper and education spending advocacy group Every Child NC, cite school boards’ potential funding losses. They also raise concerns about pay for school employees. They urge the General Assembly to abandon its voucher plan and provide additional funding for employees and facilities.

“Our public schools need significant increases in funding to provide competitive pay to successfully recruit and retain qualified teachers,” a resolution from Chatham County says.

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“Any parent should have the opportunity to decide what’s best for their children,” said Russ May, the Republican chairman of the Granville County Board of Commissioners. But the state needs to be careful not to hurt existing public schools, said May, who supports the voucher expansion.

“We need to make those changes while still being able to demonstrate that our local systems have an opportunity to improve,” he said. “… When you have a limited amount of resources, and you’re taking resources away, then what does that do?”

Schools are tasked with making big differences in kids’ lives, and local leaders across North Carolina’s 100 counties say they need more help to do that.

But education in North Carolina is largely state-controlled due to laws that govern how schools are funded and how they spend their money. Counties are legally responsible for funding facilities, while the state is responsible for funding education. Counties spend more than $3 billion of local property taxes each year on education expenses and more than $1 billion of local property taxes on facilities. The state spends more than $11 billion of its revenue on education and less than $40 million of its revenue on facilities most years.

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Each of the past two years, more than $300 million from the North Carolina Education Lottery has gone toward facilities.

Nick Picerno, chairman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners and a Republican, said Moore County spent $36.7 million last school year on education and just $4 million on capital projects.

He said the county funds about 100 teachers because the state doesn’t allocate enough. The state’s funding provides one teacher for a certain number of students, but the district may have more classrooms than that because schools are smaller, built to spread across the once much more rural county.

“If the state would pay for all the teaching positions, then the money we’re having to use to pay for local teachers could be directed to the capital [projects], which is what [it’s] supposed to be paying for,” Picerno said.

What leaders are saying

WRAL News contacted General Assembly leaders and the chairmen of the county boards of commissioners and boards of education outside the core of the Triangle to capture a wider view of what leaders say schools need right now. The station asked each one — 37 local leaders and seven lawmakers — to list their top five education priorities, fiscal or non-fiscal, and to explain what they needed to address those priorities.

One lawmaker — Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham — and two leaders each from from Moore, Granville and Wayne counties and one leader each from Orange, Lee, Chatham, Franklin, Person and Wilson counties responded via phone or email. Of the county leaders, seven are Republicans, four are Democrats and one is unaffiliated.

Berger emphasized three priorities for education, broadly: Continuing to implement a new, research-backed reading program in lower grade levels; increased parental involvement and quicker access to information about instruction and emotional health issues; and affordable college.

He said an expansion of private school vouchers also helps address parental involvement, because of “growing concern over traditional public schools veering into social issues and matters unrelated to critical core subjects like reading and math.”

County leaders’ top priorities were broader and more structural:

  • All 12 leaders said they wanted more money for facilities and noted that counties are constitutionally required to provide them, though they also spend money on education expenses, too.
  • Nine mentioned recruiting and retaining teachers and other staff as an issue.
  • Eight listed safety as a priority, often in the context of wanting to improve facilities.
  • Eight noted needing to improve academics and students’ preparation for future careers.
  • Five said students need more support for rising mental health issues that are affecting their ability to learn and teachers’ ability to teach them, and two more stressed that student behavior had led to stress among educators struggling to discipline them.
  • Three said special education funding, which is primarily provided by the state but federally mandated, is too low and is keeping schools from providing children with disabilities the legally mandated services they are entitled to.
  • One — Lee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kirk Smith — echoed Berger’s concern about social issues being discussed in classrooms.

Standardized test scores have declined since the COVID-19 pandemic pushed learning into living rooms and onto computer screens, instead of the classroom.

Leaders argued many of their priorities intermix with study performance and the effort to recover the academic ground lost during remote learning.

Facilities and school security

In 2021, North Carolina’s school systems reported having $12.8 billion in unfunded facility needs over the next five years. That’s nearly $5 billion more than the prior survey, released in 2016 — a far higher number than ever reported in the survey, which is released every five years by the state Department of Public Instruction.

The money is needed to fund new school buildings and renovations but also HVAC maintenance and minor repairs.

County leaders told WRAL News they often struggle to keep up. Several said they need new schools, major renovations for old schools and major security upgrades to make older schools more fortified against outsiders. Another desired safety upgrade is security vestibules to keep school doors locked to visitors until office staff can verify their identity and approve their entry. Those could be multimillion-dollar projects at older schools.

In the coming years, schools across North Carolina will also conduct lead and asbestos testing and could identify additional expenditures needed to abate those substances. For that work, they will be eligible for some state assistance.

Wade Leatham, chairman of the Wayne County Board of Education, said the district ended up using a lot of its federal pandemic relief dollars on backlogged facility work, replacing windows, doors and roofs. It’s able to build a new elementary school with the help of state lottery funds but needs some more money to finish it. The school system also needs to fix 100-year-old Rosewood Middle School, where half of the building is unusable because the floor is unsafe and leaking and one of its buildings is “an asbestos nightmare.” After that, he said, 90-year-old Goldsboro High School needs renovations.

Leatham said the school system has gotten creative with facilities. Students built a new weight room and a music room, either volunteering or being paid through a grant for career and technical education. The district emphasizes career and technical programming in a county where the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds who aren’t in school and don’t work is higher than most.

“It’s a tough row to hoe, and so we have to be very, very stringent with our spending needs,” Leatham said. “And making sure we’re utilizing the people’s money in the best way it can be used.”

He recalled his days in the U.S. Air Force, when he had to decide the budget for aircraft testing. Sometimes, he said, it’s not about picking your top priority but about picking which budget plan allows for the most high-priority projects to get done.

Teacher pay

County leaders said they spent significant local dollars on teachers and other employees, including supplemental pay for educators. But smaller counties say they can’t compete with bigger ones on supplemental pay.

County leaders want to see the state spend more on teacher pay, enabling a more level playing field between counties. State lawmakers have addressed that for the past two years through a new, $175 million fund for supplementary pay, distributed in varying amounts to each county based on relative property wealth.

Many counties aren’t yet seeing that new supplement reverse the growing struggle to find and keep teachers, though it’s too early to judge long-term success.

County leaders said they needed a more fundamental shift in teacher pay.

North Carolina Senate leaders are proposing varying salary increases, as high as a few thousands dollars per year for the youngest teachers but just $250 a year for teachers with 15 or more years of experience. House of Representative leaders are proposing a 7.5% increase for teachers of all experience levels, which would amount to a $3,000 to $4,000 raise in pay.

The teacher vacancy rate in Granville County last year hovered around 15% all year long, May said, far higher than most other counties. Neighboring Wake County’s shortage hovered below 3% most of the school year. The state’s average teacher vacancy rate has risen in the past two years, as educators complain of more stressful working conditions and strained incomes. Higher pay, local leaders say, will help attract and retain more educators.

“There’s no teacher pipeline,” May said. Starting pay, with all state and local supplements accounted for, is just above $40,000. “The young folks are not entering the profession primarily due to low pay.”

Applicants are short in math, science, computer science and special education, which has been a problem for decades. Nearly 40% of teachers have less than three years of experience or don’t have an undergraduate degree in education, May said. And too many teachers are leaving for higher-paying jobs in nearby counties, causing the district to need to look again for more teachers.

Elizabeth Keith, chairwoman of the Franklin County Board of Education, wants to see more investment in recruiting people into the teaching profession, such as expanding fellowship programs. She’d also like to see higher pay for teachers and others to ensure high-quality staff don’t leave for higher-paying school districts or professions.

“This is one of the reasons why the state needs to focus resources towards full funding of Leandro instead of diluting the funds to pay for a voucher program for students to attend private schools,” Keith said. “That’s not something that I think the state should be doing.”

Democrats favor expanding school funding for all public schools under the comprehensive remedial plan agreed to in the nearly 30-year-old lawsuit, Hoke County Board of Education, et. al., vs. State of North Carolina, et. al.

That lawsuit, commonly known as Leandro, has resulted in judicial findings that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a “sound basic education” for all North Carolina children.

The remedial plan calls for at least $4.5 billion more in annual education spending by 2027, as well as numerous policy changes related to school turnaround and accountability. Spending would benefit programs for students with disabilities, expand early childhood education and support other programs. It would also include a study of competitive employee pay and additional salary adjustments based on that study.

Republicans have balked at the plan and argue a court doesn’t have the authority to tell lawmakers how to write their budget. They’ve favored smaller raises for staff than Democrats have and parental school choice. That includes a proposal to expand funding for private school vouchers to more than $500 million by 2030.

Student behavioral health

Picerno thinks student discipline is a bigger issue for teacher retention than pay.

“That’s the biggest thing I hear from teachers,” Picerno said. “It’s not the money. It’s the discipline and the lack of respect.”

For years teachers in North Carolina and beyond have expressed frustration with worsening student behavior. They’ve also had to deal with declining support among administrators to discipline students and parental pushback against punishments. Approaches to discipline can vary school-to-school but some have reported to Picerno, to other board members or in public and private forums that they feel powerless to address it without administrative support or other significant intervention.

Republican lawmakers have pushed for some changes to state law on school discipline that would remove considerations for more minor offenses, potentially allowing administrators to feel like they have the freedom to issue harsher punishments for smaller trespasses.

Picerno and other county leaders support more school resource officers, in part to address discipline and in part to address general school safety.

At the same time, many education and equity advocates have argued against discipline that would involve police officers or keep kids out of school, saying discipline is applied unevenly to Black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities.

Several county leaders said the mental health of students is suffering, leading them to disengage in school or act out.

Theories abound as to why rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts have been rising among teenagers for more than a decade now. The theories range from the impact of social media and screen time to concerns that children are less independent and over-scheduled.

Separately, some local leaders say more grandparents are raising children now than before, instead of the children’s own parents.

“To have the support mechanism in our schools, for mental health issues, comes back to personnel again,” said Granville County Board of Commissioners Chairman Gordon Powell. “A good and adequate mental health system within the county, where we have counselors and health providers throughout the school system — we don’t have that. We have it on a minimal basis.”

While local leaders say they want more counselors and health professionals working in schools, some also say they want the flexibility to be able to hire mental health professionals via contract at the private-market rate, if they can’t hire a full-time employee for the role. That’s not currently allowed under state funding rules.

Many mental health professionals don’t want to apply for school jobs because they can make more money in the private sector, Keith said.

Students with disabilities

North Carolina caps funding for children with disabilities at 13% of a school system’s population and then provides a modest $25 million fund for all counties to apply for extra money.

The percentage of children in Granville County identified for special education — commonly referred to as exceptional children — is 16% across pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms, prompting the county to spend its own dollars to help.

“There’s a shortfall there,” Powell said. “That number should not be capped at [13%]. It should be whatever that number is.”

Congress, which 50 years ago started requiring special education services in public schools, promised decades ago to fund special education at a far higher amount, closer to the actual cost. Federal lawmakers have never provided that promised amount.

“So we have a mandate that’s unfunded,” Powell said.

May is the father of a child with a special education plan — formally called an individualized education program, or IEP — and he felt his family had to fight for services in under-resourced schools. He said his child was successful because he and his wife were able to pay to make sure their child got the services they needed. Many other families don’t have the money to do that, May said.

“Exceptional children’s [programming] needs special attention,” May said. “I think it needs more of a microscope. … I think our system tries to do the very best it can with the funding that we have. But I really would like to see more funding from the state and more help in that regard to make sure that every child’s IEP is met and met satisfactorily.”

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