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Editorial: State budget talks a stretch

School officials may have breathed a sigh of relief when other Rowan County commissioners did not take Tina Hall and Jim Sides up on cutting school funding proposed for next year so they could reduce the property tax rate.
But the suspense is not over, not as long as the General Assembly is in session.
As the state budget stands now, some $50 million in funds may go into diesel tanks and teacher bonuses instead of local school programs in the coming year. The state Board of Education says fueling up school buses will cost an additional $45 million, thanks to escalating prices, but budget negotiators are leaning toward giving only $30 million more. The board also is seeking $107 million for teacher performance bonuses, part of the state’s commitment to teachers under accountability programs. Neither House nor Senate has offered more than $71 million.
Put those together, and state Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee says some $50 million that normally would be allocated to local systems may have to be pulled back to cover these expenses. Locally, the Rowan-Salisbury School System could lose more than $700,000 in funding it was expecting ó enough to pay 14 teachers, according to spokesperson Rita Foil.
Meanwhile, teachers’ raises are under fire as other state employees demand parity. Lawmakers are struggling over whether to give state employees raises of 2.75 percent (or $1,100, whichever is greater), versus 3 percent, which the proposed budget now contains for teachers.
It’s easy to see how state employees could resent teachers’ consistently higher raises over the years. As correctional officer Dennis Hartley of Landis said in Raleigh, “We’ve got to have better pay so we can survive.” People in any number of jobs, both private and public, could honestly say the same thing. Fuel prices are pushing nearly everyone to the brink.
Putting a number to that need ó arriving at a logical percentage for raises ó is a balancing act between generosity and limited funds. In his budget proposal, Gov. Mike Easley called for 7 percent raises for teachers, a figure that relied on increased “sin” taxes that are not happening. The General Assembly may hope that giving teachers 3 percent raises ó much less than Easley proposed, but more than other state employees’ raises ó still communicates North Carolina’s great commitment to quality education. Instead, the fourth-of-a-percent difference looks like an intentional slight toward state employees.
Budget writers say 2.75 percent is generous compared to what other, shortfall-pinched states are doing. If North Carolina is doing so well, though, why would the state stiff the Department of Public Instruction on diesel fuel or even quibble over a fourth-of-a-percent difference in raises?
Determining the validity of budget requests and revenue projections takes more research and analysis than can be done here. But as lawmakers strive to make North Carolina live within its means ó whatever that is ó they face the same challenge as every family, business and institution across the nation. Fuel prices are stretching budgets from both ends. Something’s got to give.

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