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Senate and House leaders praise education decisions, rush to meet Friday’s budget deadline

Budget_Agreement-400 [1]

Public education didn’t see the deep annual cuts that have become almost commonplace in recent years, as a proposed $21.7 billion budget from Republican state leaders was made public and faces likely passage this week.

Lawmakers in the both branches of the Republican-controlled legislature, up against a deadline of midnight Friday when their current continuing resolution funding state government expires, scrambled Tuesday to digest the 429-page budget [2] released late Monday night.

The Senate held its first vote on it Tuesday affirming the budgets while their House counterparts, who have a rule that budgets must be publicly available three days before a vote, are scheduled to vote Thursday.

The Senate passed its budget on party lines, with Democrats in the minority objecting to the late night reveal of the budget [3] that left many unable to parse through the hundreds of pages of budget documents before voting.

“We have asked the state to wait for months while we blow budget deadlines,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, according to the Associated Press [3]. “Now that we finally have a budget and people are asking for a chance to read it before we vote on it, the answer is no … when it comes to respect for the voters, this is about as bad as it gets.”

The compromise budget is expected to pass both Republican-controlled houses without much opposition, before heading to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.

The budget is more than two months overdue, and included some controversial tax changes [4], including a slight income tax cut and broadening of the sales taxes.

Public education systems emerged with some high-profile items – like drivers education and teacher assistant positions – funded.

The Senate had proposed doing away with more than 7,000 teacher assistant position in favor of lowering class sizes, but the two sides ultimately agreed to keep teacher funding at 2014-15 levels.

Gone, however, will be some of the flexibility that school districts had with teacher assistant funding and school districts won’t be able to shift the funding to fill other priorities.

Senate and House leaders praised the budget in a preview they gave Monday, saying it was a sustainable budget that will allow North Carolina to move forward.

“I don’t think there’s anything in there that anyone will be surprised by,” said state Sen. Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the Senate.

But, as expected, there were some surprises.

Several omissions, cuts and decisions to keep funding at existing levels will leave those in classrooms from kindergarten to universities struggling to meet the needs they have, critics of the budget said.

“The General Assembly’s budget doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of our students and public schools,” said Rodney Ellis, the head of the N.C. Association of Educators, in a statement. “North Carolina can’t afford to lose a generation of students by disregarding the resources they need to be successful.”

Among the increases were an additional $52.8 million over the next two years for textbooks in the public school system, a much-needed increase that still leaves the state below what the state spent per student on textbooks in 2008.

The University of North Carolina system also some of its top priorities filled – with $49 million more each year to fund enrollment growth. Over the next two years, $16 million was promised to shore up the struggling medical school at East Carolina University and $6 million over the same time period to help Elizabeth City State University, a historically black college in the northeastern corner of the state, increase its enrollment.

But, the university system also received a large discretionary cut from lawmakers, more than $67 million over the next two years and on top of nearly $500 million in recurring cuts [5] the higher education system has absorbed since 2010.

Here’s a rundown of what was, and some of what wasn’t, in the budget:

Education, K-12

N.C.’s community college system

University of North Carolina system

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska-Few can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected] [7].