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Editorial: A bleak scenario

If you were going to draw up the worst-case financial scenario for local schools, it couldn’t get much bleaker than the warning coming from the Rowan-Salisbury System of what lies ahead if state budget-cutters slash as broadly and deeply as some have proposed.
The loss of more than 80 teaching positions and 90 assistants, along with scores of other personnel, from literacy coaches to guidance counselors to custodians; larger class sizes and less supply money; no funding for staff development; less money for programs for at-risk youth ó this sounds like a certain recipe for giving up some hard-won advances and derailing some much-needed initiatives, such as attacking our abysmal dropout rate, closing the achievement gap and enhancing the technological literacy of students. Local school officials say such cutbacks are inevitable if the state adopts a budget similar to that approved by a House committee last week.
It’s enough to provoke a march on Raleigh, as many advocates of education and the public-service sector recently did (countered, it should be noted, by another contingent arguing that legislators should make whatever cuts are necessary to avoid any tax increases). But the question is: What are state budget writers actually going to do? There’s no doubt the state faces some of the most severe budget constraints in its history. You can’t attack a $4.2 billion shortfall with a paring knife. Yet the cutbacks proposed by the state House are significantly more severe than the budget plans advocated by Gov. Beverly Perdue and the state Senate, although their plans also require reductions (accompanied, in the Senate version, by some restructured fees and new taxes). That discrepancy suggests a measure of political maneuvering and gamesmanship is going on here. While that’s inevitable, let’s hope state leaders quickly get past it and reach a reasonable consensus. It’s times like these when true leadership rises to the occasion, leadership that can turn hard choices into smart decisions.
The harsh reality is that real cutbacks will be necessary, and local school systems are going to feel the crunch, along with community colleges and universities, mental health agencies, courts, public-safety departments, early childhood programs and social services. When unemployment is approaching double digits and many residents are struggling to find affordable housing and health care, public-sector institutions can’t be spared from the pain.
But in setting priorities, budget writers should make sure today’s pain doesn’t lead to even greater trauma down the road by stunting future growth and deepening the misery of those who are already marginalized. The House proposal slices into the heart of education ó the classroom itself. While many taxpayers might be happy to see reductions in the six-figure salaries of administrative staff, far fewer would vote to balance the budget through larger class sizes and fewer classroom personnel. They know who will bear the real costs ó the students themselves.

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