Local legislators work to include calendar flexibility, exclude regional social services from budget

Published 12:10 am Sunday, June 4, 2017

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — School calendar flexibility could come to Rowan, and social services wouldn’t be reorganized into regional agencies if the efforts of local legislators hold up through budget negotiations.

When the N.C. House passed its budget last week, it included a proposal from Rep. Harry Warren, R-77, to start a pilot program for school calendar flexibility. The document excluded a regional social services idea that appeared in the Senate’s budget and Rep. Carl Ford, R-76, said he worked to get removed.

Other included items in the N.C. House budget are: raises for state employees and retirees, teacher raises that average 3.3 percent, an increase in the standard tax deduction and a number of other items, some of which are similar to the N.C. Senate’s budget. The budget passed the House on its third reading by a bipartisan count — 80 to 31. Now, the House and Senate will convene a group of legislators from both bodies to sort through details in the spending plans.

Warren said school calendar flexibility stands a “very good chance” of making it through the negotiation process because of its strong support in the N.C. House. Warren’s school calendar flexibility bill passed the House by a 104-6 count. The bill picked a number of counties across the state, including Rowan and Cabarrus counties, to test the ability to set their own start and end dates within a limited window. Currently, the state sets start and end dates for public school systems.

“It’s all about what’s in the best interest of the kids,” Warren said.

Despite its passage, the school calendar flexibility bill hasn’t received serious consideration by the N.C. Senate. It has languished in the rules committee.

“The reason it got included in the House budget was because there was every indication that the Senate wouldn’t take the bill up,” Warren said.

Reps. Linda Johnson, R-83, and Craig Horn, R-68, support calendar flexibility, which Warren said is a reason his proposal made its way into the House budget. Horn and Johnson are chairs of the House’s education committee. Horn is also a chairman of the House’s education appropriations committee

Warren said school calendar flexibility stands its best chance yet this year of becoming a reality again. In the early 2000s, the state moved to set uniform start and end dates.

“Ever since then, the tourism industry has been so powerful that these bills go nowhere,” he said.

Ford said he usually doesn’t like policy proposals to be included in the budget, but he’s OK with school calendar flexibility being placed in the House document.

“This is a good pilot program that is going to help us learn some things that we need to learn,” he said.

For his part, Ford’s budget-related efforts focused on excluding a proposal to create regional social services agencies. The idea found its way into the N.C. Senate budget. Ford called excluding the proposal from the House budget his No. 1 goal.

“The Senate’s idea was to pass it along, get it started and study it,” he said. “We should study it first and then decide whether to do it or not.”

The Senate’s proposal would shrink the number of social services agencies from 100 county departments to 30 regional organizations. January 2022 was set as the deadline for regional agencies to be operational.

Ford said he heard from social services directors about the idea. The directors expressed opposition to the proposal, but said they would be OK with discussing regional social services agencies, Ford said. Rowan County Social Services Director Donna Fayko was among the group of directors who expressed opposition to approving the regional idea without further study. Fayko said about 20 percent of the county’s population could be affected by the change.

To get the proposal removed, Ford said he met with “the big chairs” and explained his position. Ford said he’s unsure what will happen to the regional social services idea, and that it’s important to pay attention to budget negotiations.

“This is far from being the final budget,” he said. “But at least we’ve got it out for now.”

Neither Ford nor Warren said they expect to be named budget conferees — legislators selected to sift through differences between the House and Senate budget and craft a final document.

Still, Warren said he plans to continue working to ensure the final budget includes an additional assistant district attorney for Rowan County. The House budget leaves the number of assistant district attorneys at eight. Warren said Rowan County needs one more.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.