Senate to slash school funding

RALEIGH "Eliminating 6,200 teachers, forcing children into larger classes, and limiting the ability of public schools to provide needed services is the wrong direction for North Carolina,” said State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison.

Harrison said the plan would mean 6,200 teachers would lose their jobs as school class sizes would be increased by two students through the 2010-11 school year. The increase would mean a savings of $322 million annually as lawmakers try to plug a $3.4 billion budget gap for next year.

"As a former teacher I will tell you this is a tough decision for me to make," said Sen. Linda Garrou, D-Forsyth, co-chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She added, "Of course, when I taught school, I had 40 children in my classroom."

Governor Beverly Perdue has said she adamantly opposes such an idea, which would reverse several years of efforts to lower class sizes, particularly in early grades.

Perdue worries that the changes would reduce "the amount of individual attention our kids receive in the classroom," spokesman David Kochman said.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest teaching lobby, joined Perdue in opposition to raising the average class size to 20 through third grade and 22 in fourth grade and above.

The proposal will "do lasting damage to student performance and learning," association president Sheri Strickland said. Such a decision also could jeopardize federal stimulus money for education, she added.

But senators said the larger classrooms would be temporary and that most of the reduction in teacher employment would come through attrition as teachers retire, move out of state or change careers.

In all, Garrou said the $20.05 billion budget would lay off 712 state workers and keep another 910 positions vacant for the fiscal year starting July 1 -- numbers that appear higher than Perdue recommended.

Senate budget-writers ordered the Department of Public Instruction headquarters in Raleigh to get rid of 100 positions this coming year and another 200 in the 2010-11 fiscal year. Four aging prisons would be closed, compared to seven under Perdue's proposal.

The Senate budget also would enable state agencies to furlough workers -- through voluntary or mandatory means -- to meet cuts ordered in the spending plan. Perdue didn't offer that option in her nearly $21 billion spending proposal for next year.

The Senate's budget plan, portions of which were rolled out in appropriations subcommittees late Monday, also would begin to merge former Gov. Mike Easley's More at Four early childhood initiative with other programs. The Senate's top budget-writing committee was to consider the spending proposal Tuesday, with likely floor votes Wednesday and Thursday. The House then would create its own version.

The budget would be balanced by finding another $580 million in revenues, but those details haven't been finalized. They're likely to include some increases to tobacco and alcohol taxes.

Another $1.7 billion in federal stimulus money also would help.

Senators didn't follow Perdue's recommendation to give departments less than 100 percent of their expected allotment to pay workers to find cost savings. Instead, many agencies were ordered to reduce spending by a set amount but received flexibility to decide on where the cuts would occur.

The bill does attempt to create private-sector jobs in a state where the current 10.7 percent unemployment rate is the highest since North Carolina started keeping records in the mid-1970s.

It sets aside more money to train more community college students to enter nursing and technical positions, while needy students in the University of North Carolina system get more financial aid. UNC and community college leaders praised the plan.

"This has been a gut-wrenching process and it continues to be so," said Sen. Charlie Albertson, D-Duplin. "We're trying to position North Carolina so we can create jobs and keep our schools in good shape so when this recession gets behind us, we'll be in position so we can move forward."

The health care budget would save more than $100 million by freezing Medicaid reimbursements to doctors, hospitals and other providers and reduce Medicaid payments for personal care services by $55 million.

The dollar amount for the Senate plan is $930 million smaller than Perdue's plan, but the difference can be attributed to how Medicaid money through the federal stimulus law is accounted.

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