After NC classroom layoff angst, schools making do

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A year after widespread worries that thousands of teachers would face layoffs because of state budget cuts, the dimming days of summer vacation see schools coping and holding stable ahead of a new academic year.

Some school districts with growing enrollments this year are even hiring after four recession-scarred years that saw thousands of teachers and teaching assistants laid off. Others have cut teacher pay. Some have replaced lost state and federal funds with more local tax money.

School administrators in Wake and Buncombe counties credit fiscal controls with building reserves they're tapping now to tide them over, with hopes that the economy will improve, tax collections increase and more education funding returns.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are ready to spend $1.2 billion this year — more than their pre-recession high. In the process, the district is adding teachers to meet expected enrollment growth and giving pay raises to more than 24,000 employees.

All that is a difference from last summer, when the state budget constructed by Republicans in control of the Legislature for the first time in 140 years featured spending cuts as temporary taxes expired. Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and her political allies warned the budget cuts approved last summer would lead to the elimination of more than 9,000 jobs in the public schools.

That proved to be overstated.

A statewide survey last fall of nearly all of the state's 115 school districts found the equivalent of 6,383 positions, most of them vacant, were lost ahead of the 2011-12 school year. Of those positions, 534 teachers and 1,260 teaching assistants were actually laid off from jobs they held, according to the Department of Public Instruction. Another 627 pre-kindergarten teachers, teacher assistants, principals, and office workers also suffered layoffs. Some were later rehired as some districts received more money in line with an increase in students.

Last year's layoffs are comparable to the 2,367 education layoffs in 2009-10, when Democrats controlled the General Assembly and budget-writing, according to the DPI survey.

More recent statewide employment surveys are less precise but also indicate the job losses were far fewer than critics predicted. There were 3,100 state and local "government education services" jobs lost between June 2011 and this June, according to state Division of Employment Security data. That number includes nearly anyone who works in public schools.

But the layoffs and eliminated positions were part of a pattern since the Great Recession began in late 2007.

In the four state budget years beginning in July 2008 and ending this July, 6,168 people lost jobs and 17,279 positions were eliminated. That includes 2,122 teachers given pink slips.

This year's Republican-written state budget adds more than $250 million to K-12 education spending, reducing cuts lawmakers delegated for local school districts to make. Despite that, public schools will have $190 million less to spend than they received last year. That's because the additional state funds didn't fully cancel out the loss of $259 million in federal education jobs money.

Perdue warned that would lead to more schoolhouse job losses this year. Traditional calendar schools reopen Aug. 25, but some snow-plagued mountain districts have already started.

The state Department of Public Instruction plans to survey school districts again this year to see if the threat of job losses bears out. Results are expected this fall, weeks after classes resume.

One reason for the relative calm this year is that administrators had a year's notice on how legislators planned to fund education, Buncombe County Schools personnel director Cynthia Lopez said. Last year, the two-year state budget that provides some school districts with 80 percent of their funding wasn't approved until well after their normal planning and hiring cycle for the new academic year started.

"So with very conservative budgeting and the cuts that we've made the past three years, we were positioned to not have to make cuts this year," Lopez said.

The district is able to afford to replace about 200 teachers and principals who have left, which is about the normal 10 percent turnover for Buncombe County's 2,000 licensed educators, Lopez said.

The threat of layoffs isn't as great a threat as it was last year, said Brian Lewis of the North Carolina Association of Educators, which represents thousands of teachers.

"We are rooting for the superintendents preserving jobs and keeping teachers in front of students," Lewis said. "I think they're getting more out of the same number of people."

Durham Public Schools, the daily workplace for 33,000 students, are holding steady for the academic year about to start after tapping into savings and replacing the end of federal funds that preserved school jobs with a higher local sales tax, said Paul LeSieur, the school district's budget and finance director.

"Everyone was preparing for the cliff," LeSieur said. "For this year and next year possibly, I think school districts will be able to make it through. ... My concern for school districts is in the next two years out."

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio

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