Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ Why are school districts lamenting cuts and threatening layoffs when the new North Carolina state budget increased overall public school spending by $237 million? And how can lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory thump their chests about saving teacher assistant jobs when money earmarked for them declined?

Thank the convoluted North Carolina budget process, where apparent spending reductions on paper can become actual spending increases. And line items for money going to districts for things like teachers, support personnel and instructional supplies don’t mean as much now because lawmakers last year further loosened restrictions on their use.

Expanded flexibility to spend education dollars and overall growth in the state’s 1.5 million-student public school system make it more difficult to label winners and losers in the annual education budget, part of the overall spending bill signed by Gov. Pat McCrory last week.

“Budgeting in North Carolina is a complex endeavor,” said state schools Superintendent June Atkinson. “You can look at a category and see there’s a cut, but if there’s flexibility, in some school districts it may not be a cut. In another school district, it may be an increase.”

Seemingly conflicting budget figures still provide legislative leaders, political parties, teachers and administrators enough facts and numbers to spin messages of educational progress or calamity. That’s particularly important as all General Assembly seats are up for re-election in November. Public education under Republican rule in Raleigh will be a leading campaign issue.

Total state spending for public schools for the new fiscal year is $8.1 billion. During the previous fiscal year ending June 30, the legislature approved public school spending closer to $7.9 billion. A sizeable portion of the overall spending increase can be attributed just to the cost of teaching more students in a growing state.

GOP leaders are promoting the roughly 7 percent average pay raises for teachers, the largest increase in several years. Teachers with less than 12 years’ experience are getting the largest increases, with some exceeding 18 percent.

“This is a tremendous budget for teachers,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, a chief budget negotiator.

Democrats and their allies point out the pay increases are smaller for the most veteran teachers, dropping to 0.3 percent for a teacher with 30 years’ experience. The North Carolina Association of Educators argue part of the raise is not a true increase because the new pay scale incorporates longevity payments many already were receiving.

“The longer people look at this plan, they see that what has been promised is not what is supported by the numbers in this plan,” said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham.

The new budget also contains $368 million for districts to hire teacher assistants in kindergarten through third grade, less than the $454 million provided last year. Still, McCrory said last week the new budget contained “the same funding this year as last year for teacher assistants and teachers currently in the classroom.”

How? Because districts last year transferred about $89 million from their teacher assistant allotment to fund other public school needs, with the lion’s share going for teachers in early grades. So the legislature increased money for K-3 teachers this year to align it more with actual teacher and assistant spending.

Some local school boards and superintendents complained loudly about the budget last week, with some threatening to have to lay off teacher assistants because of the shifts. Districts that actually used their assistant money to pay for assistants can take money elsewhere to preserve the jobs, but budget procedures make it more challenging when siphoned from teacher dollars.

Rockingham County Schools Superintendent Rodney Shotwell acknowledged mechanisms to carry out the budget and the added flexibility for districts can make it difficult for the public to determine who really comes out ahead.

“What you’re hearing from the General Assembly is correct, and what you’re hearing from the superintendents (is) correct,” said Shotwell, who is also president of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators.