- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Funds earmarked for school districts to hire teacher assistants are once again a sharp negotiation point between Senate and House leaders trying to hammer out a two-year state government budget.

The conflict again adds worry to thousands of assistants whose jobs could be jeopardized this fall.

For the third year in a row, Republicans leading the two chambers disagree how much money should be allocated for these aides, which help teachers with instruction and keep the peace in classrooms. They sometimes even drive school buses and perform other duties.

Senate Republicans skeptical of the value of assistants on student academic performance would in their budget cut funding for teacher assistants in half this fiscal year to $182 million and to $75 million for 2016-17. The House budget would keep assistant funding at current levels, or $375 million.

Senate leaders, however, also would spend $273 million more over two years to hire more than 3,200 new teachers in classrooms for kindergarten through third grade. They consider lowering teacher-student ratios in early grades the path to improved student achievement.

“We have a finite amount of money and we want to spend that money the best we possibly can to educate students in the classroom,” said Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga, an education budget-writer. “We have not cut teacher assistant funding in the classroom as much as transfer this money to reduce class sizes.”

The House has been more sympathetic to the value of assistants.

“I support the TAs, I think they serve a vital purpose,” said Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, another education budget-writer. Budget negotiations, expected to intensify next week when the legislature returns from a break, are becoming harder to resolve over assistants, he added: “It is a tough nut to crack, and it keeps getting more and more difficult.”

Two years ago, House Republicans initially proposed reducing teacher assistant funds by 4 percent annually, but the two chambers ultimately scaled back earmarks for assistants by 18 percent the first year and another 17 percent in the second.

As a concession two years ago, lawmakers further loosened restrictions on money heading to the state’s 115 school districts so funds for personnel and instructional supplies could be shifted to almost any education need. Districts have even spent tens of millions of dollars earmarked for teacher assistants elsewhere.

This flexibility makes it difficult to calculate how many assistants could lose their jobs should the Senate view win out.

The General Assembly’s nonpartisan fiscal staff calculates the reduction as equivalent funding for 9,300 assistants by 2016-17. The Department of Public Instruction said there were 15,364 teacher assistants paid with state funds during the past school year, or a 32 percent decline compared to seven years ago.

Some assistants have joined with liberal advocacy groups in holding events statewide accusing senators of wanting to lay off 8,500 workers.

“Cutting 8,500 teacher assistants is not only going to hurt our students and our teachers but it’s going to hurt us,” said Melinda Zarate, a teacher assistant at Friedberg Elementary School at Davidson County, after a Legislative Building news conference last week.

Brady Johnson, the Iredell-Statesville Schools superintendent, said he doesn’t understand why what he called “draconian cuts” must continue given there was a $400 million budget surplus last year. Johnson said his district doesn’t have additional funds like larger systems to preserve his system’s 195 assistants should the Senate’s proposal prevail.

“Who’s going to monitor the children on the playground? Who’s going to walk them to the cafeteria?” said Johnson, the North Carolina Association of School Superintendents president.

In a signal of support for the House offer, Gov. Pat McCrory wrote lawmakers last week urging them to give “schools the flexibility to hire the classroom teachers and teacher assistants needed to provide an outstanding education for children across our state.”


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