Education

A veritable graveyard of education budget cuts

Just off of I-40, across from the North Carolina Museum of Art on the outskirts of Raleigh is the textbook warehouse for public schools. In the spring and summer it’s typically a busy hub, dispatching everything from elementary reading kits to high school physics books to far corners of the state.

But these aren’t typical times. In the past three years state funding for public schools has fallen by $690 million, including severe reductions to the textbook budget, professional development, the state’s pre-K program and the Governor Morehead School for the blind.

A textbook warehouse off I-40 where actual books are sparse. Photo by Phyllis Nunn / NC Justice Center

A textbook warehouse on the outskirts of Raleigh, now largely empty of actual books.
Photo by Phyllis Nunn / NC Justice Center

The fallout from these cuts is on display at the textbook warehouse where actual books are sparse, yielding space for furniture and myriad supplies that were once part of the North Carolina Teacher Academy, the pre-K program and the Morehead School.

In short, it’s a veritable graveyard of education budget cuts.

Supplies that were once part of the North Carolina Teacher Academy, the pre-K program and the Morehead School now populate the textbook warehouse. Photo by Phyllis Nunn / NC Justice Center

Supplies that were once part of the North Carolina Teacher Academy, the pre-K program and the Morehead School now populate the textbook warehouse.
Photo by Phyllis Nunn / NC Justice Center

Drew Fairchild, who’s overseen the ebb and flow of public school textbooks for the past 10 years, knows better than most what happens when policymakers tinker with the funding and the adoption process for new books.

In the past three years, there have been significant changes to both. The most dramatic shift came in the 2010-2011 school year when textbook funding plummeted from the previous year’s sum of $116.8 million to $2.6 million and effectively halted the adoption process for social studies texts.

Since then, there’s been a slight uptick in funding, but nothing that comes close to what’s needed to buy new books for the state’s 2,500 public schools.

Depending on the type of book purchased, Fairchild said, the funding stream for new textbooks typically requires anywhere from $70 million to $95 million a year. When “you cut the system off,” he said, both the need for new books and the cost begin to snowball.

“All of these adoptions, as we put them off year by year, are butting into each other, piling up on top of each other,” he said. “So now all of a sudden you’ve got a potential funding liability that’s not $70 (million) or $80 million, but…you’ve got $200 (million) to $300 million, if you wanted to buy them all at once.”

In 2010-2011, he said, school districts “didn’t have a prayer.” The 10 largest, he said, “chose to carry over their old books. None of them could buy new books.”

Textbook funding plummeted in the 2010-2011 school year from the previous year's sum of $116.8 million to $2.6 million.

Textbook funding plummeted in the 2010-2011 school year from the previous year’s sum of $116.8 million to $2.6 million.

In Forsyth County, home to the state’s fifth largest school system, budget cuts have led to the loss of 225 teaching positions, outdated equipment, larger class sizes and a short supply of textbooks. In the past three years, the school system has cut $23 million from its budget.

No one was laid off, said Superintendent Donald Martin. The staff reductions took place through attrition, he said, and other cost savings were the result of carefully crafted measures designed to protect classroom instruction.

Many high school teachers, for example, shifted from a seven-period day to a block schedule, a change that allowed them to teach eight classes a year instead of seven; and teaching assistants lost some of their paid workdays but none of the their class time.

“It’s a long list of things like that,” Martin said. “Some of them were little. Some of them were pretty big.”

Among the things on Martin’s list is the purchase of textbooks. “We just didn’t buy any,” he said. “We bought some replacement books, but we didn’t by any new ones.”

That was last year. This year with the slight uptick in funding, secondary schools did receive a limited number of new math books. For Noelle Shutt, a seventh grade math teacher at Meadowlark Middle School, the new books are a blessing and somewhat of a curse.

She said she’s grateful to have the new, updated texts, but she has 113 students and only 30 books, which means they can’t take them home. She also has two classes with more than 30 students.

The books come with electronic access codes, so students who have computers at home or close at hand can get to the books online. Shutt also relies on old fashioned photocopies. “The central office is nice enough to provide a print shop,” she said. “We can have them compile a workbook so every student can have their own.”

Another challenge is the growing number of students in each class. The increments are small, maybe two or three kids in each one, but teachers at Meadowlark said it adds up.

“You’re stretched too thin,” said eighth grade teacher Debbie Harwood, especially when nearly a third of the kids are special education students.

“I have nine pullouts in one class,” she said, “so that means I have nine kids who have modifications and special needs and 30 kids in the class, and it’s extremely challenging.”

In addition, she said, there’s the very real possibility that teacher evaluations will include student surveys with questions like these: Does my teacher know my hopes and dreams? Do I feel connected to my teacher?”

“If you have 30 plus kids in your classroom,” she said, “it’s very difficult to know the hopes and dreams of each kid.”

“During the depression, which was the toughest fiscal time we ever had in this nation, the general assembly stepped forward and supported public education. [...] In the second most difficult fiscal time we’ve had, we’ve chosen to turn our backs on our children.”
—State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison.

State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison described reductions in state funding as draconian.

“During the depression, which was the toughest fiscal time we ever had in this nation, the general assembly stepped forward and supported public education,” he said. “We restructured our funding program in 1933 to ensure kids had access to something of quality across the state. In the second most difficult fiscal time we’ve had, we’ve chosen to turn our backs on our children.”

The cuts, Harrison said, have had a dramatic impact on public schools. “We’ve seen an increase in class size, decreases in the numbers of teaching assistants in the classroom, decreases in the number of assistant principals and in the number of school counselors and social workers and nurses, and all of those support the classrooms.”

In short, he said, “We’ve lost a lot of people.”

Northeastern North Carolina, which is home to several of the state’s poorest counties, lost nearly 800 positions, said Leon Holleman, director of the region’s educational service center. Some are the result of state level budget cuts; others were lost when federal job creation funds came to an end earlier this year.

Ever since the budget cuts began, school leaders have tried hard to protect school children from feeling the effects, Holleman said, but as time goes by, that’s become harder and harder for superintendents to achieve.

“This past year,” he said, “was the first time I felt like superintendents were saying, ‘We can’t save the classroom anymore,’ especially in the low wealth, poor counties in our region.”

The cuts, he said, have had an impact on everything from class size to course offerings, and they’ve affected everyone from teaching assistants to central office staff, including the director of transportation in Tyrrell County Public Schools.

The person who had the job retired, Holleman said, so the superintendent is now running both the school system and the buses.

“You have folks who are doing everything they can to keep the ship afloat,” he said, “but my fear is there will come a time when there are too many holes and not enough thumbs to plug ‘em.”