- Associated Press - Friday, February 5, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s education department says it has cut $2.5 million from its budget and eliminated about 20 previously vacant positions without tapping into new funds from the legislature earmarked to help early-grade children with reading.

A Department of Public Instruction document last month to the state budget office had asked to make up for $2 million of the mandated cuts by transferring money designated to carry out the Excellent Schools Act.

The request came even after then-State Budget Director Lee Roberts wrote state schools Superintendent June Atkinson in October that it was not the General Assembly’s intent to allow DPI to use some of the additional money for the Excellent Schools Act and its reading program to offset budget reductions and cover administrative costs. Atkinson had suggested such a transfer in an earlier letter.

The disclosure this week angered Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, the chief proponent of the Read to Achieve program, which aims to have children proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

Berger said Atkinson was misleading lawmakers in an education oversight committee Tuesday about how the cuts were being carried out.

“It’s bad enough we have a Department of Public Instruction with priorities so misplaced that they proposed shifting money intended to help children around our state learn to read to fund Raleigh bureaucrats,” Berger said Thursday in a release.

But Department spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter said the agency submitted an updated proposal this week with position cuts effective immediately and alerted the Office of State Budget and Management about it. She said there’s no “backfilling” designed to restore eliminated positions.

“There was an earlier submission that did shift some positions from one funding source to another, but the submission of this week replaces the earlier submission,” Jeter wrote in an email. The reductions include the elimination of nearly five positions within digital learning and academic services and several deputy superintendent positions, according to a DPI document.

The state budget appropriated $61.8 million to carry out the Excellent Schools Act this fiscal year, an amount that will grow to $66.5 million for the new year starting July 1. The money goes in part to pay for student reading assessments, summer reading camps and other tutoring.

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