July 19, 2012Despite the dire early warnings, it appears Guilford County Schools won't lose any teachers this year when the Guilford County Board of Education approves its 2012-2013 budget on July 26.
Also, all Guilford County Schools employees except for Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green, who makes $250,000 a year, will get 1.2 percent salary increases.
The school board worries about catastrophic funding cuts each year, but they rarely happen. Before the economic crash they simply didn't happen because the North Carolina General Assembly was regularly increasing school system funding during the boom years. Since the 2008 crash, they haven't happened largely because the federal government has stepped in with hundreds of billions in stimulus money earmarked for education.
Another reason that Guilford County Schools doesn't experience a catastrophe every year is because of current-year-baseline budgeting. That means that Guilford County Schools, like most government entities, assumes each year that it will get the funding it got last year – plus a large funding increase to maintain all its programs, whether they work or not, and to cover cost increases. It expects each year's budget to be substantially larger than the last, and defines any funding level below that large increase as a "cut."
That's how you end up with Guilford County Schools telling the public each year that it is having massive cuts, although spending rises every year.
For the 2012-2013 budget, the school board estimated from draft state budgets that it would have $28 million in reduced funding, including $13.3 million because it won't get the one-time grant it got last year from the federal EduJobs stimulus bill.
The school board began its budget process this year by estimating a $24.7 million decrease in school funding, but still proposed increasing its budget from the $660 million of 2011-2012 to $668 million, the largest year-to-year increase in Guilford County Schools spending at least since the market crash of 2008.
Green planned to do so by using about $13 million Guilford County Schools never spent in 2011-2012, increasing class sizes by a quarter of a student, saving another $1.1 million, and asking the Guilford County Board of Commissioners for $185 million, which is $9.8 million more than last year. The commissioners have held the school system's county funding steady at $175 million since 2008.
Obviously, cutting students into quarters isn't an option, so Green was actually proposing to increase the size of classes by a few students over each school, reducing the need for teachers slightly. But the final state budget provided enough money to eliminate the need to do so.
To call the $24.7 million a decrease is to simplify, because Guilford County Schools also includes in that number mandates from the state that cost money, like adding days to the school year, and some spending the school board simply wants to do because of changes in the state budget – including matching General Assembly pay raises for state-paid employees for Guilford County-paid employees. But calling it anything else makes the school board's byzantine accounting system almost impossible to explain.
As it turned out, the decrease in funding for Guilford County Schools in the final state budget was far smaller than first estimated by longtime Guilford County Schools Chief Financial Officer Sharon Ozment, who retired June 30. In the early stages of the state budget process, there are numerous budget proposals floating around – the House version, the Senate version, the governor's version, a conference committee version and sometimes others. Ozment took the worst-case scenario and put it in Green's budget proposal, plugging in the lowest funding amounts from the various state budgets.
As usual, however, the reality turned out to be very different. The total reduction in Guilford County Schools funding compared to what the school board wanted from all sources was not $24.7 million, but $10.3 million – and all of that came from the loss of the EduJobs money, which Guilford County Schools had already covered by saving money from the 2011-2012 school year. The General Assembly actually increased the school system's funding by $2.48 million over last year. Poof! All those drastic cuts disappeared.
The state budget even includes a 1.2 percent salary increase for all school system employees statewide, including those of Guilford County Schools. The school board on July 10 voted to spend $1.25 million to pay for salary increases for employees who are paid by Guilford County Schools. To simplify a bit, the $1.25 million was less than the $1.94 million in increased state funding.
At one point, the General Assembly was considering a one-time $250 bonus for all school system employees – and the Guilford County commissioners approved $464,877 in funding to pay for the bonus for county-paid employees. According to school board Chairman Alan Duncan, the school system gets to keep that money.
The exact amount the school board will get from the General Assembly is uncertain. A wide-ranging reform of the state's public schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, sponsored by state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger – the Excellent Public Schools Act – could bring Guilford County Schools more money, or cost it more in unfunded mandates.
The act would eliminate tenure for North Carolina public school teachers, who get lifetime tenure after four years. It would replace tenure with one-year contracts for teachers – still a benefit for teachers, as most private-sector employees in North Carolina are at-will employees, who can be fired at any time. The act also would require a merit pay system for teachers.
Berger's bill has crossed over to the House, where it has been referred to the House Education Committee.