- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Teacher assistants are unhappy with North Carolina lawmakers for failing to pass a state budget and they are worried about their jobs a little more than a week before school goes back into session.

Assistants and their supporters spoke at a news conference Thursday, one day after lawmakers passed a bill to extend budget negotiations until Aug. 31. The budget was supposed to be completed July 1.

A big sticking point in negotiations is funding for the assistants. The House wants to retain funding at last year’s levels, but the Senate wants it reduced by $300 million over two years, or the equivalent of between 8,500 and 9,300 assistant positions, depending on who’s counting. Senators want most of the funds shifted to hire 3,300 teachers in early grades.

Speakers at the news conference, assembled in part by the Aim Higher Now NC education advocacy group, said assistants already have been laid off in a few districts, including those in Beaufort, Forsyth and Pitt counties, in light of the uncertainty and potential cuts. Other districts have alerted the assistants they could be dismissed.

“We are worried not only for ourselves and the income on which we depend, but for the teachers we work for and especially for the students we served,” said William Johnston, president of the North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants, working in the Bladen County Schools. He said he’s one of 83 assistants who could lose their job in his district.

Assistants say they serve a key purpose in the classrooms, working with students in need of academic help and helping teachers keep control in large classrooms. Many assistants also drive school buses.

“Once you cut my position and many other wonderful assistants’ positions, please tell me who will perform these duties?” asked Erica Johnson, an Alamance-Burlington schools assistant.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told reporters later Thursday that House Republicans “are solid” in negotiations on retaining funds for teacher assistant positions. He suggested giving even more flexibility than what’s already provided in state law to school districts to spend money on assistants or teachers.

Senate Republicans favor investing more money in teacher positions, saying lower student-teacher ratios in early grades are the key to improved student performance.

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