“It looks like we haven’t communicated as well as we should.”
Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, is perhaps a week away from voting through a second round of cuts for North Carolina’s top public school agency, part of about $3.2 million in funding reductions approved by state lawmakers this year.
Since 2009, the agency has weathered more than $22 million in legislative cutbacks, much of it sped by GOP lawmakers who argue the K-12 bureaucracy is wasteful or lacks accountability. Today, Cobey—a Republican appointed by former Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013—sounds particularly tired of talking about it.
“I don’t see a bloated bureaucracy,” he complains. “I haven’t seen a bloated bureaucracy since I got here four and a half years ago.”
In late July, the state board passed down most of this year’s reduction, about $2.5 million in operations cutbacks and the loss of 15 positions, seven of them filled. Next week, Cobey hopes to dispense with the remaining $700,000 or so.
After the vote in July, Cobey said the remaining reductions would be even harder. That prediction was true, Cobey acknowledges today.
“In the first round, we had (offices) that were willing to step forward,” he says. “Now we’re having to ask those who don’t feel like they have anything to give to bring forth cuts. That makes it more difficult.”
Last week, DPI officials told board members they may fill a portion of the gap by reallocating federal cash to fund four positions within the department and cutting DPI’s salary reserves, a pool used to provide additional funds for hiring.
Operational reductions would also trim cash from the agency’s professional development, contractual services, trips, dues and subscriptions, benefits, equipment and transportation.
Cobey and board members have emphasized retaining staff during the cut process, although the board chair said this week that leaders may still have to ax positions.
“I’m hoping we won’t have to cut anybody, but I’m just not sure,” he added.
Next year’s cuts figure to do more damage, Cobey says. State lawmakers bundled in an additional $7.3 million cut, or about 13.9 percent of the department’s operating funds, in 2018-2019.
Cobey said Wednesday board members hope to convince the General Assembly to trim next year’s demands, although he’s been given no indication by lawmakers that they intend to back off.
State legislators have had a contentious relationship with DPI leadership over the last decade, and this year’s budget negotiations followed a similar path. In addition to the operational cuts, legislators also set aside $1 million for new GOP Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson to audit the agency.
Lawmakers also provided funding for Johnson to hire up to 10 positions that report directly to him, a point of tension between Johnson and the state board in 2017.
Board members have limited flexibility in how they administer the scale-down. The General Assembly forbade school board members from handing out cuts to Johnson’s office, as well as GOP-favored initiatives such as Teach for America and the Innovative School District, a controversial program that may turn over operations in some low-performing schools to for-profit, charter operators.
Cobey added that the state’s charter office is likely to be spared as well, pointing out the office’s relatively small staff of seven is charged with overseeing a rapidly growing number of charters.
Public education advocates have been critical of the funding cuts, which they say will disproportionately impact poor and rural districts that rely on DPI for professional development and intervention. On Thursday, N.C. Association of Educators President Mark Jewell called the legislative cuts “unsustainable.”
“These cuts come at a time that North Carolina already ranks near the bottom in the nation in per-student spending,” said Jewell. “North Carolina’s constitution guarantees that every child should have equal access to a free public education and our General Assembly is not holding up to that agreement.”
Indeed, Cobey said he was most concerned about the impact on North Carolina’s poorest districts, those that lack the tax base to afford ample support for struggling schools.
“We’re going to be able to help the low-achieving schools in the districts,” said Cobey. “But we don’t have the capacity we once had. You hate to lose that capacity.”
The State Board of Education is scheduled to hold its regular monthly meetings next Wednesday and Thursday.