by Tori Hamby
A coalition composed of several state and local education advocate groups has a message for N.C legislators: Our children are worth a penny.
“The quality of our children’s education is worth a penny – a penny that we are already paying,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board member and N.C. School Board Association president Joe “Coach” White. The association is one of the forty organizations lobbying the state legislature, through the Quality Schools Coalition, to extend a statewide 1-cent addition to the sales tax used to help fund public education.
That penny, which was added to the sales tax in 2009, generates about $1.1 billion a year for the state. In Mecklenburg County, the sales tax is 8.25 percent.
“It’s not a new tax, it’s not anybody breaking their word to tax payers,” White said. “It’s not something that people don’t already experience everyday. I guess you could say it is a compromise”
Trouble began brewing earlier this month when the state House of Representatives voted 72-47 to pass a $19.3 billion budget, which does not include an extension of that penny sales tax, set to expire June 30.
The House allocated $7.16 billion to schools – a nine percent cut in funding from last year, meaning the state could be forced to slash at least 11,750 public education positions.
Meanwhile, the Senate is discussing its budget proposal, which tentatively includes $106 million less in public education funds than the House’s budget. Both budget outlooks serve as grim omens to school districts, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, facing multi-million county cutbacks as well.
A report from The N.C. Association of Educators, released in March, ranked North Carolina 46th in the county for per-pupil spending and 45th in teacher pay. If legislators continue to cut public education funding, those numbers could fall even further.
“Over the past two years, the number of positions that have been cut have left us no wiggle room,” said Bill McNeal, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators.
“The level of erosion taking place could impact public schools for the next 20 or 25 years to come.
“North Carolina is not only competing nationally, but internationally as well, and at the end of the day our children won’t be prepared for the future. We are trying to go further and faster, but yet we continue to make cuts.”
Mecklenburg County manager Harry Jones’ recommended budget, which he presented to commissioners at a meeting Tuesday evening, May 17, would reduce its cuts to the school system by $26 million, about half of what the school board had requested on May 10.
Jones also reminded the school board that it could ask voters to approve a quarter-cent county sales tax increase by putting the measure on the ballot later this year.
“There is no doubt that residents will be contacting the board to fund CMS beyond what is in the recommended budget,” Jones told commissioners.
However, the additional funding comes with a property tax increase for 57 percent of Mecklenburg families – a burden that school board member Rhonda Lennon, who represents north Mecklenburg County schools, says will fall heavily upon her district.
“If commissioners approve it, (my district) is going to bear a large part of the tax increase,” Lennon said.
While the $326 million in county funding could save 260 teaching positions, the district must depend on the state, which funds 55 percent of the district’s budget, to save additional jobs. However, Republican majorities in both legislative chambers have continued to express their commitment toward lowering, reducing spending and allowing the penny sales tax increase to expire.
Lennon said that while she understands the need for more funding at the state level, she thinks that lawmakers can find money for public education.
“I certainly understand both sides of the issue and support the legislature as they search for sources of funding, but I think there’s money there at the state level that they can be put toward public education without extending the penny sales tax,” she said.
The legislature approved the penny-increase in 2009, when financial burdens stemming from the recession forced lawmakers to find alternate sources of revenue in order to close the budget gap. The move raised the minimum sales tax percentage that consumers must pay on purchases to 7.75 percent, raising Mecklenburg County’s sales tax rate to 8.25 percent on goods and 9.25 percent for restaurants and prepared food.
White said that it is difficult to speculate how many jobs could be saved by the tax extension because lawmakers would still have to determine how much of each penny would be budgeted toward public education.
“Right now, we are focusing on just saving the tax,” White said. “Any part of it would certainly save jobs.”