by Justin Vick

STATESVILLE – The Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education reluctantly approved a plan Monday, May 9, to eliminate 76 positions, including 40 teacher assistants, in response to proposed state budget cuts.

Superintendent Brady Johnson outlined $5.5 million in reductions that he said would negatively affect student’s academic success and put children’s safety in jeopardy.

District leaders directed ire at state lawmakers, particularly the House of Representatives, whom Johnson said balanced a budget on the backs of teacher assistants.

“These folks had the audacity to say ‘We have been supporting public education because we didn’t cut the teachers.’ Well, that’s a half-truth,” Johnson said. “When you cut the legs out from under the people who support the teachers, you affect teachers.”

According to numbers provided by the school district, the proposed House budget calls for a 48 percent reduction in funding for teacher assistants, opting to fund them for kindergarten and first grade only.

Iredell-Statesville Schools proposes to lay off 40 teacher assistants and reclassify those who remain as part-time teacher assistants and part-time bus drivers. This would reap $3.5 million in savings.

As a result, teacher assistants would see their classroom hours reduced to four hours a day, while serving as part-time bus drivers, prompting the average income for teacher assistants to fall $2,800 to $16,800.

Driving a bus for 2.5 hours a day would ensure they keep their benefits.

Johnson requested board approval so employees could be notified by Friday of their options.

“We’ll work very closely with those folks to help them with the process of signing up with unemployment,” Johnson said. “If by some miracle funding does come back, then we will recall people.

The district has avoided layoffs over the past two years by eliminating 175 positions through attrition.

While attrition will again be used to offset as much of the budget cuts as possible, Johnson told the school board that attrition alone will not eliminate the problem. Layoffs are necessary.

School board member Charles Kelly explained the difficulty in approving a set of cost-cutting measures he didn’t agree with in principle. The hardest part, Kelly said, would be when something happens at the school and a resource officer or school nurse is not there to help.

“It goes without saying that none of us like to face any of these reductions,” Chairman Dave Cash said.

Superintendent outlines several other cuts

Iredell-Statesville Schools will use the $3.9 million it received last September from the federal JOBS Bill funding to offset state reductions and prevent the district from closing alternative schools, imposing student fees and requiring athletes pay to play their sports.

The federal government distributed that money to help schools retain jobs during the recession.

The school board resisted the temptation at the time to use JOBS Bill money to rehire people for jobs that were lost to attrition. And now that money will be used to offset $3.9 million in state cuts and protect the district’s fund balance, or savings. The district will have a fund balance of $5.5 million next year to account for emergency expenses and maybe offset budget cuts when building a 2012-13 budget.

“That’s so important that you protect your fund balance, because this time next year we’ll be talking about the same thing,” Johnson told the school board.
Johnson outlined several other cost-cutting measures.

• Instructional support ($1.1 million saved) – The district would lay off six School Assistance Program employees, two social workers, three media coordinators and three guidance counselors. One school nurse position will be lost to retirement and four instructional facilitators jobs will be reduced; employees will be given the opportunity to go back into the classroom.

• At-risk ($451,900 saved) – The district would lay off three office positions, eight teacher assistants at secondary schools, one guidance counselor and three school resource officers. Johnson said the Town of Troutman recently voted to fund one of those officers, and the district is in talks with Statesville about funding the other two.

• School building administration ($212,800 saved) – Two assistant principals would be laid off, with the rest losing two weeks of employment. Retirees would no longer be used to fill in for principals when they miss extended periods of time due to illness; assitant principals would cover for them.

• Non-instructional support ($192,200 saved) – The district would lay off three school receptionists and one general school office position. Employment will be reduced by two weeks for school bookkeepers and data managers and one week for high school athletic directors, football coaches and band directors.

• Central office ($163,400 saved) – The district will try to fund its safety coordinator through grants and its executive director of exceptional children through Medicaid Reimbursement funds. The career-technical education director position would be laid off. The latter cuts are not certain and require state approval.

Johnson said that central office staff has endured its share of cuts over the last two years and will continue to do so. The district has already reduced salaries by 2 percent for administrators, from the superintendent to assistant principals. And it’s eliminated performance bonuses and cut local salary supplements it uses to stay competitive with neighboring school districts in hiring staff.

The district has shed several central office positions in recent years, including the assistant superintendent of learning, chief strategic planning officer, grants manager, cultural arts director and four mentor coaches.

And six of the 32 positions in the central office are funded partially or entirely by grants, Johnson said.

School districts by the economic tsunami

Johnson said his district’s response to budget cuts was the best it could do given three consecutive years of state budget reductions.

State funding has declined from $110.8 million in 2008-09 to nearly $101.4 million in 2010-11.

At the same time, local funding fell, too. Current expenses dropped from $32.9 million in 2008-09 to $29.2 million in 2010-11. Capital expenses fell from $6 million to $1.2 million during that same span.

“For two years now, we’ve been telling people there was an economic tsunami getting ready to hit the school system, not only us but every school system across the state of North Carolina,” Johnson said.

Johnson based his forecast off federal stimulus dollars drying up and anticipated cuts from the state level.

While Gov. Beverly Perdue’s proposed budget called for about a 4.5 percent cut in public school funding, the proposed House budget calls for cuts of about 8.8 percent.

“Throughout the spring, we have been diligently looking for ways to cut this budget,” Johnson said. “When we got the governor’s budget, there was a little bit of optimism there. But I will say when that House budget came out, it was a shock.”

And perhaps the worst is yet to come, depending on where the Senate stands on K-12 education.

“This response probably will not get better, but I can almost eerily say that it will get worse,” Johnson told the school board. “We may be coming back to you in June with additional cuts.”

One way the General Assembly could help local school systems is to not let the temporary penny sales tax increase established two years ago expire, Johnson said.

He expressed interest in taking a delegation to Raleigh to knock on the doors of the lawmakers so they could see how cuts will affect the district.

Where’s the lottery in all this?

Iredell-Statesville Schools will not be using lottery proceeds to cover salaries.

Superintendent Brady Johnson explained that proceeds aren’t guaranteed from one quarter to the next. He also thinks they would be better spent for the district’s maintenance needs.

“The maintenance department for two years has been operating on an absolute shoestring,” Johnson said.

As a result, the district has deferred a lot of maintenance on some of its older buildings, which may need roof replacements and heating and air conditioning repairs.