Worst cuts for schools could be in technology; finance panel also hears of potential drop in number of teachers

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Maggie Blackwellmblackwell@salisburypost.comThe Rowan-Salisbury School System could see its technology funding slashed by more than 75 percent, could lose classroom teachers, and teachers who remain could face larger classes with less help next year under looming state budget cuts, the system’s Finance Committee heard Thursday.
At a somber meeting, the committee tried to figure out how to plan for budget cuts from the state for the 2009-2010 school year.
North Carolina sales tax revenues are down because of reduced consumer spending, and that has caused significant budget shortfalls. As legislators develop the state budget for next year, they are trimming it severely, anticipating continued losses.
Rowan-Salisbury Chief Financial Officer Tara Trexler has projected losses at the local level based on the state’s request to prepare for budget cuts of 3 percent, 5 percent or 7 percent. The cuts will not be across the board, but will be made in areas the state deems most able to absorb them.
Trexler projects cuts in 22 budget line items, with the largest based on her calculations coming in technology, which would drop from a current level of $893,515 to under $200,000.
To reduce teacher positions, the state would increase classroom ratios.
For example, to cut the education budget 5 percent, the current ratio of 21 students for each teacher would be increased to 22.5 students per teacher for seventh and eighth grades.
If 7 percent cuts are required, class ratios for all grades would be increased by one student. The kindergarten ratio would be increased from 18 to 19 students per teacher, for example.
It already appears the system will lose at least eight classroom teachers.
Losing those eight teachers should not affect instruction, however, as the cut is due to a new rule raising the age at which students can enter kindergarten. That will result in a net loss of 180 kindergarten students, school system officials said.
Trexler speculated that classroom assistants will be cut, based on her conversations with state representatives. No one can say with certainty how many assistants the system could lose.
That would be a big hit to the system, said Delores Morris, assistant superintendent for human resources. Teacher assistants also serve as bus drivers and represent a stable area of employment with little turnover, she said.
If those are cut back with a simultaneous increase in students per classroom, teachers will have less help and more students.
Another cut may reduce or eliminate school resource officers in the middle schools. The system has been creative in funding officers to date, Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom said, but those options might disappear. Grissom has been applying for grants and searching for other funding.
All the potential budget cuts being discussed represent operational costs. Capital funding for buildings is separate and, by law, can’t be used for operations.
The committee worked to develop its annual budget request to Rowan County commissioners for local funding, much of which this year will be used to compensate for losses at the state level. The proposal will go first to the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education for approval on March 23, then to commissioners.
School system officials are unsure of the final state plan and can only speculate based on their communications with state authorities.
Statutes specify a state budget is to be finalized by June 30 of each year, but that doesn’t always happen.
“We can only hope we find out before next school year begins,” Grissom said, “so that we don’t have to make cuts after students begin instruction.”
In addition to Grissom, Trexler and Morris, the Finance Committee includes school board members Bryce Beard and Karen Carpenter.