N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, left, talks with Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, talk on the Senate floor last month. Photo by Travis Fain.

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RALEIGH — The state Senate, now in the driver’s seat on North Carolina’s budget, would cut kindergarten through 12th-grade education deeper than the House and be a bit gentler with the state’s university system, according to spending targets from the Senate’s top leadership.

The bottom line would still be less money for education than the state is spending this year, despite an expected increase in students. The budget would also end the temporary penny sales tax set to expire June 30, which Gov. Bev Perdue has proposed extending three fourths of to avoid the deepest education cuts and keep teachers assistants in classrooms through the third grade.

The House voted to fund those assistants in kindergarten and first grade only, and the Senate’s proposal seems likely to follow suit, as well as find another $100 million in cuts to K-12 education.

“Apparently we’ve determined that we’re going to out-cut the House,” Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, said Tuesday. Nesbitt termed the cuts, on the heels of cuts from previous years, “just a deathblow” for public schools.

Republicans in the majority for the first time at the statehouse hold a decidedly different view, saying the cuts may be painful, but they’re better for the economy than raising taxes. The education system that emerges “may not be a Cadillac, but I think it’s still a Buick,” state Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said Tuesday.

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During the next few weeks, Senate leaders will “polish and perfect” a budget the House approved last week, said Apodaca, who is a key member of the GOP’s Senate leadership team and a co-chairs of the chambers education budget committee. The deeper K-12 cuts seem to be the key change in the emerging Senate budget, and the university system would benefit from that shift, getting more funding than the House proposed.

Even so, universities would get about $217 million less than they’re getting this year under the Senate proposal.

Community colleges would also get less funding, though several Republican legislators have said they expect these colleges to take lower-achieving students out of the university system, particularly as the legislature cuts the state’s need-based scholarship program.

Many of those scholarship recipients don’t graduate, and probably shouldn’t be at a full-fledged university anyway, state Sen. Jerry Tillman said Tuesday. Tillman, R-Randolph, co-chairs the Senate’s education budget committee.

Just how many jobs all these cuts would eliminate is unclear. Democrats, in the minority after decades of legislative control, paint a dire picture of layoffs not just for teaching assistants, but for thousands of teachers and thousands of regular state employees on top of that. Republicans say many of the cuts will hit vacant positions, and that teaching jobs will be shaved through attrition, not layoffs.

But because the state sends money to local school systems, which implement their own budgets, it’s difficult to estimate how many actual jobs would be lost. What is clear is that schools would get less money for salaries, school supplies, textbooks and technology.

“Not to put any general funds toward technology — I mean, come on — that’s our future,” budget committee member Sen. Linda Garrou, D-Forsyth, said Tuesday.

State Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga, and also a member of the committee, acknowledged that “there’s going to be some harm done” as cuts are implemented. But the freshman senator said it’s better than increasing taxes.

“I think that the most important thing we’re doing is we’re spending the amount of money we have coming in,” Soucek said.

As the Senate does its work, a showdown looms with Perdue, who has vetoed several pieces of Republican legislation so far and has indicated she won’t sign the evolving budget. If the two sides can’t compromise, state government could shut down July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

In preparation, Perdue is taking her message to the public, inviting the media to tour area schools with her as she talks to teachers and students about the coming cuts. In a visit last week to a Raleigh high school, the governor said she plans to give legislators “a real hands-on lesson” about “the real North Carolina.”

BY THE NUMBERS: HOW THE EDUCATIONAL FUNDING PLANS COMPARE

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With the House approving its version of the 2011-2012 state budget last week, it’s the Senate’s turn to make suggestions. Here’s how the House proposal and the Senate leadership spending targets for education funding — which form the basis of an evolving Senate proposal — compare to this year’s funding and to what Gov. Bev Perdue proposed for the next fiscal year beginning July 1.

K-12 public schools

  • Current state funding: $7.36 billion
  • Governor’s proposal for the coming year: $7.57 billion
  • House’s proposal: $7.23 billion
  • Senate’s spending target: $7.12 billion

Community Colleges

  • Current state funding: $1.09 billion
  • Governor’s proposal for the coming year: $1.02 billion
  • House’s proposed: $992 million
  • Senate’s spending target: $970 million

University System

  • Current funding: $2.74 billion
  • Governor’s proposal for the coming year: $2.66 billion
  • House’s proposal: $2.44 billion
  • Senate’s spending target: $2.53 billion

Source: N.C. Senate Education Committee spending targets. All figures rounded.

RELATED DOCUMENT
N.C. Senate Education Committee on Education-Higher Education Target Comparison 5.9.11

Travis Fain

Travis Fain is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ctfain@yahoo.com.

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