A hasty, unwise change

Aug. 16, 2014 @ 04:02 PM

Philip Price, veteran chief financial officer for the N. C. Department of Public Instruction, called a shift in the way the state will calculate funding for local school districts “the largest change in the budget in my lifetime.”

Heath Morrison, superintendent of the state’s second-largest school district in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, called it “a very radical change.”

These are intently interested observers. Price has been DPI’s chief financial officer for more than a decade and first joined the department 36 years ago. Morrison runs one of the state’s fastest-growing, most complex systems.

Given the magnitude they describe, you would think the change had been carefully studied, rigorously examined and robustly debated in committee and on the state House and Senate floors.

You would be wrong.

With the change, the state will no longer fund schools through a formula based on enrollment. Under that process, in place since the 1930s, local districts could expect their state funds to grow predictably if their fall enrollment was expected to increase – a crucial guarantee since local budgets must be finished and teacher hiring underway well before the legislature lumbers to conclusion with its budget. This year, the budget wasn’t final until late July, weeks after the beginning of the budget year and in some cases days before new terms began for schools on year-round calendars.

It was inserted in the budget in the final hours – and some key legislators, even in the Republican majority, did not realize the change was in the budget until after it had been passed by both houses.  Gov. Pat McCrory, who promptly signed the budget, apparently now shares the reservations of many education leaders. He is said to be quietly working behind the scenes to persuade the legislature to back off, even as his aides describe the change as minor.

Unless the legislature does backtrack, the change “makes a very complex process even harder,” Aaron Beaulieu, Durham Public Schools’ chief financial officer, said last week. School board Chairwoman Heidi Carter, calling it “incredibly worrisome,” said it will be “totally impossible to do good planning.”

Across the state, leaders in districts with rapid growth – ones that will be hit hardest by the change – worry it will delay recruiting new teachers until after school has started. Not surprisingly, at that point the best candidates have been snapped up.

Some Democrats have voiced concern that the change could be a way to with little fanfare force larger class sizes or otherwise further erode state support of public education. We’ll give the legislature the benefit of the doubt as to whether that’s true.

But it is, as Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill put it, echoing Carter, “one more thumbscrew that very much limits our planning.”

The legislature needs to undo this hasty, clandestine change.