RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue called Monday on Republican leaders at the Legislature to work together with her to repair spending cuts in public education and prevent even deeper holes for local school districts this fall.
But Perdue did little to encourage teamwork from GOP lawmakers in charge of the General Assembly by labeling them and their actions “extreme” and sticking to her proposal to raise the sales tax by three-quarters of a cent as the solution. Republicans have called that tax idea dead on arrival when it’s presented in her budget proposal for next year.
The governor, starting two weeks of public appearances on the public school funding topic in hopes of buttressing public opinion in her favor, said lawmakers can’t ignore the end of $258 million in federal grant money that local school districts used to hire more than 5,400 school personnel this year.
The budget that begins July 1 also would require the districts to return an additional $74 million combined to the state on top of $429 million of state funding already being returned as a cost-cutting measure initiated by Democrats in 2009. The General Assembly will return to work in mid-May to adjust that budget that was already approved last year.
“This is the year that there has to be a plan,” Perdue said outside the old Capitol building before heading to Charlotte for the first event. “They can’t just do more cutting. It’s extreme … it’s near-sighted because this is a state that’s built its brand on the fact that we believe in education, we invest in education.”
The offices of House Speaker Thom Tills, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, didn’t immediately respond to Perdue’s comments Monday.
Relations between the governor and the legislative leadership are cool to say the least. Perdue vetoed a record 16 bills last year, including the budget bill that Republicans were able to enact anyway with a veto override thanks to votes from five conservative Democrats. GOP legislators also have accused Perdue of ignoring the budget by announcing last month she wouldn’t collect ferry tolls that Republicans say were clearly mandated in the spending law.
The two sides also have disagreed on the effects of public education cuts in the $19.7 billion budget this year by using their favored data.
The budget law required a $459 million spending reduction compared to what was necessary to keep the public schools operating at last year’s level. The law reduced funds for local districts to hire assistant principals, guidance counselors and to provide textbooks and instructional supplies.
But Republicans point out they provided additional funds to hire more teachers in early primary grades and to meet population growth projections, resulting in more than 2,000 full-time teachers hired using state funds, according to Department of Public Instruction data. A pair of conservative-leaning groups began airing a television commercial last week in several major markets using the number to highlight what they call positives in the budget.
Perdue and other Democrats argue that’s misleading because federal stimulus money and local spending reductions resulted in 915 fewer teachers employed statewide and 2,000 fewer teacher assistants, according to data. Overall, the public schools report 175,630 full-time personnel this year, a 2.7 percent decline compared to the 2010-11 school year.
Republicans say local districts were given discretion to make spending cuts, and some chose to reduce classroom instructors. Discretionary cuts by local districts mandated by the Legislature, combined with the line-item staff salary reductions in the budget, gave school boards and principals a narrower window of options from where to make the reductions.
Perdue called on Americans for Prosperity Foundation and John William Pope Civitas Institute to take their TV ad off the air. She said the “distorts the truth” and “muddies the waters” by failing to provide context about the entire budget.
“We are sitting today with fewer teachers than we had in the classrooms last year, fewer employees in the public school system, fewer teacher assistants as we face increasing enrollment,” she said.
Dallas Woodhouse, state director of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, said the ad is “100 percent accurate and truthful” and said Perdue should look at her own record on education since taking office in 2009.
Perdue signed into law a Democratic-penned budget in 2009 that raised sales taxes by a penny. That spending plan and the 2010-11 budget required a combined $304 million in mandated “discretionary” cuts by local districts to close spending gaps. Overall public school employment fell from 191,128 in the 2008-09 school year to 180,470 in the 2010-11 school year.
Democrats have said the penny sales tax, which expired last summer, prevented even deeper employment cuts from occurring.
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