Teacher assistants on the chopping block in superintendent’s budget

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Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras’ proposed budget would cut about 50 teacher assistants to meet an unfunded mandate by the state General Assembly to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. And that assumes the success of a budgetary relief bill, which is currently stalled in the Senate.

In her annual budget message to the Guilford County School Board on April 4, Superintendent Sharon Contreras wrote, “What I know for certain is that our budget must reflect our priorities. We cannot say that we value the education of our children, yet fail to respond to the budgetary needs that influence their very learning. To do so is in direct contradiction to what we know is true — actions, not words, reflect priorities.”

Contreras wrote that since the 2008-09 school year, the district has cut its budget by $120 million and eliminated 500 positions. Meanwhile, North Carolina teacher pay ranks 41st in the nation, and principal pay ranks dead last. “Despite these dismal rankings, we have some of the most effective and dedicated teachers and principals in the country — for now,” Contreras wrote. “When professionals feel overwhelmed and underappreciated, they become disillusioned. If our most effective people choose to leave our district because we refuse to address these challenges with decisive action, our children will suffer.”

On the same day, members of the Guilford County School Board received Contreras’ budget message, teacher assistants found out exactly where the pain would be felt in the district’s financial squeeze.

Separate from her budget message, Contreras wrote to teacher assistants across the district: “An unfunded mandate reducing K-3 class sizes adopted by the North Carolina General Assembly during their last legislative session is forcing GCS and other local school districts to make a number of difficult budget decisions — decisions that will likely affect your current position in Guilford County Schools.”

The district is currently planning to reduce about 50 teacher assistant positions to free up funds in order to add classroom teachers in kindergarten through third grade and meet the General Assembly’s mandate, Contreras said. The cut to teacher assistants “is just one of many difficult decisions we are making to manage the anticipated budget shortfall,” Contreras said. “We are also increasing class sizes in grades 6-12, closing High School Ahead, and reorganizing central office.”

The planned elimination of 50 teacher assistant positions assumes the passage of HB 13, a bill that provides some budgetary relief and flexibility to school districts from the mandate to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. HB 1030, the current appropriations bill, would incur a cost of $16.6 million to the district to meet the mandate, spokesperson Nora Murray said, while HB 13 would reduce the cost to $4.6 million.

“The superintendent’s proposed budget is working under the assumption of what our budget would be under HB 13 in the hopes that it would pass,” Murray said. “If it doesn’t we would face more difficult cuts.”

The school board passed a resolution in late February requesting that the General Assembly “fully fund any changes to class sizes.”

The school board charged in the resolution that the state budget “codifies ratios by statute and precludes both locally flexible class sizes for K-3 and the use of teacher allotment funds for teachers of art, music or physical education at those grade levels, and furthermore results in funding less elementary teaching positions that would be necessary to meet the requirements of the new class-size allotments and continue other important teaching services at the elementary level like art, music and physical education.”

HB 13, which would defray the cost of reducing class sizes, passed the House, but has languished in the Senate Rules Committee since Feb. 20. The committee is chaired by Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican from Brunswick County. Rabon could not be reached for comment.

Todd Warren, a Spanish teacher at Guilford Elementary in Greensboro who is the president-elect of the Guilford County Association of Educators, said he suspects Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and other Republican leaders in Raleigh are intentionally delaying passage of HB 13.

“There are two reasons,” Warren said. “One is to create chaos in our budget cycle. I think it’s a bold maneuver on their part to force localities to come up with extra funding. They know localities are doing their budget right now. It’s really backward the way we do the budget. The localities are setting their budgets now based on assumptions about state funding, but the state budget won’t be passed until later.”

Berger, who represents Rockingham County and the northwestern part of Guilford, could not be reached for comment for this story.

Warren said teacher assistants have been furloughed for four years to allow the district to realize savings, originally with three days eliminated and now a day and a half. He added that the budget squeeze over the years has pitted specialist teachers like himself against teacher assistants.

“They are most certainly facing [budget constraints] for specialists like foreign languages and art,” Warren said. “How they addressed it in Guilford County has done a good job of making sure that although they’ve had to furlough teacher assistants, they don’t have to let them go. We’ve reached a funding precipice where they have to cut positions now. What it looks like is they’re trying to save specialists and not teacher assistants. I think we’re being faced with terrible choices: Do you want your right hand or your left hand?

“I really hate to see teacher assistants going through this,” Warren added. “They’re among our most vulnerable and marginalized employees, and they’ve had to take the brunt of our budget cuts. They’re the least able to take it financially, and they’ve already made tremendous sacrifices. They are the magic glue that holds everything together. They’re the heroes of elementary education.”