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N.C. Schools To Cut Nearly $40 Million From Budgets

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North Carolina school districts are due this week to tell the state how they intend to slash nearly $40 million from their budgets in response to the state's continuing fiscal crisis.

The education department last month asked school officials throughout the state to reduce their spending by $36 per student. As a result, individual districts will be required to trim anywhere from $27,828 to $2.7 million from their current budgets.

The call for spending cuts so close to the end of the school year prompted both the North Carolina Association of Educators and officials of Wake County to urge Gov. James G. Martin to call a special legislative session to address the issue.

"If education is the number-one issue, as most citizens believe, then we should not balance the budget by jeopardizing the future of our children," wrote Julia P. Kron, president of the n.c.a.e., in a recent letter to the Governor asking for a special session.

The state is suffering from a $400-million shortfall caused by inaccu4rate revenue projections.

Robert E. Wentz, superintendent of the Wake County school system, which includes the state capital of Raleigh, suggested that the district will only be able to meet its targeted $2.2-million reduction by closing schools for several days.

Superintendents in rural parts of the state also are considering shutting down schools to save money on salaries. In many counties, that is the only money that has not yet been spent.

But Bob R. Etheridge, the state superintendent of public instruction, has said he is "never going to recommend that we close schools and deprive children of the education we say they are entitled to receive in order to balance the state budget."

Mr. Etheridge also is prepared to ask the Governor for a special session if the budget situation worsens, according to Kay Williams, a spokesman for the education department.

But the department first will examine districts' proposed cuts to see how much money they estimate8they can save.

"If we find that they cannot meet the $36-per-student quota, and if revenues have not accelerated, we will then have to make some difficult decisions," Mr. Etheridge said in a statement.

Many districts have frozen unfilled positions and are planning to delay the opening of summer school until July 1 to push its costs into the next fiscal year. Also targeted are expenditures for transportation, staff development, and supplies.

But Peter Relic, superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, said his district is "adamant against reducing school days or limiting the summer-school program."

The district, the largest in the state, has been asked to cut $2.7 million.

"Perhaps the cuts will come from paper reductions, by paying for some state items in July rather than in June," Mr. Relic said, "but there are no real cuts to be made because all the state money has already been spent."

Wake County saved $300,000 by canceling all unfilled orders,el15l$150,000 by calling off staff-development workshops, and $320,000 by freezing noninstructional positions and identifying salary money that was budgeted but has not been spent because of lags in filling jobs, according to Lynne Garrison, a spokesman for the district.

Despite those and other measures, Ms. Garrison said, the district is still $900,000 short of its $2.2-million target.

Mr. Wentz and representatives of the Wake County school board and county commission met last week with Governor Martin to ask for help.

Tim Pittman, the Governor's communications director, said Mr. Martin does not plan to call a special session. In any case, the spokesman added, there would be little to gain from doing so. The legislature's regular "short" session begins May 21.

School districts have been asked to cut only 1 percent of their budgets, Mr. Pittman noted, while other state agencies were asked three or four months ago to trim between 6 percent and 10 percent of their spending.

"The Governor understands it's a tough problem," Mr. Pittman added, "and that's why he didn't ask schools to cut any more or to cut any sooner."

The fiscal crisis does not portend well for the legislature's upcoming session.

Legislators will have to decide on funding for the state's Basic Education Plan--an eight-year, $800-million program to equalize educational opportunity across the state that began in 1985.

Last year, during the first year of the current biennium, legislators approved spending $110 million for the program over two years--$42 million short of the amount needed for full funding--and pledged to allocate the rest during this year's session.

Legislators also will be asked to appropriate money for Senate Bill 2, the 1989 School Accountability and Improvement Act, which provides school districts with more flexibility, in the form of waivers, in exchange for increased student achievement. The money would be used to pay for differentiated-pay plans in districts that opted to devise such plans.

Finally, the legislature will be confronted with the issue of funding the second year of 6 percent salary increases for teachers.

In her letter to the governor, Ms. Kron of the ncae said that none of the programs should be cut back. North Carolina students' scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test ranked last in the nation last year, she noted.

"The different boards of education and the state superintendent are all asking for legislators to continue their commitment to the b.e.p. and Senate Bill 2," said Ms. Williams, the spokesman for the education department.

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