News: CJ Exclusives

Atkinson Faces Tough Questioning About Funding Shift

At oversight hearing, Sen. Barefoot demands superintendent to defend transfer of money from literacy program

CJ file photo
CJ file photo

State Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, grilled state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson Tuesday on whether the state Department of Public Instruction violated legislative intent and budget requirements on a $2.5 million budget cut.

The exchange occurred during a meeting of the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee one day after Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, sent Atkinson and William Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, a letter questioning whether they may have shifted money earmarked for student reading programs to preserve DPI’s “bloated bureaucracy.”

Barefoot said he wanted to provide Atkinson with the opportunity to “reassure us that no dollars that were appropriated for the Excellent Public Schools Act or the Read to Achieve program are going to be diverted away from helping students to funding reorganizations, and funding new positions at the Department of Public Instruction.”

Atkinson said she would be happy to provide the General Assembly with the list of positions that were eliminated to meet the $2.5 million budget cut mandated in operations and administration.

She said she also would give legislators a list showing how the $62 million allocated for the Excellent Public Schools Act is being shared by local school districts “for the teaching of reading.” A large portion of that is for Read to Achieve, a program aimed at improving student literacy in early grades, and includes funding for mandated one-on-one tutoring.

Barefoot said he had a letter from former state budget director Lee Roberts that two methods DPI was using to manage the $2.5 million budget cut were not appropriate,” and asked Atkinson again to assure that money appropriated specifically to go to classrooms “will not be used to fund any type of bureaucratic or personnel growth or reorganization or relabeling at the Department of Public Instruction.”

“You have my assurance that it is the intent of the Department of Public Instruction as well as the State Board that those dollars go to our schools to help improve reading, as well as the nine other provisions that are in the Excellent Schools Act,” Atkinson replied. She said she would provide him with a letter she sent to Roberts in response to his concerns on Dec. 31.

A new organizational chart created by DPI includes what appears to be a new position titled “achievement performance officer” that reports to Atkinson. Barefoot told Atkinson he was concerned, and asked whether Excellent Public Schools Act funds were being “diverted away to any new six-figure position.”

“Again, I give you my assurance, and we would be glad to provide the data to support what I’m saying,” Atkinson said. “The position that you are talking about has been part of our department for some time. The title changed.”

She then said more than 300 positions have been cut from DPI in recent years.

“And candidly, with the General Assembly giving us another set of reports to go to you, complex reports that require a lot of work, we are struggling to meet those requirements,” Atkinson said.

“We will continue to do our best to meet the needs of our school districts so that they can meet the needs of each child,” she said. Excellent Public Schools Act money is being used “to improve reading achievements as well as the nine other provisions” in the act.

Barefoot also raised concerns at the outset of his remarks about whether Atkinson and Cobey met secretly regarding the use of funding, but he did not get an answer.

Committee co-chairman Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, cut off discussion in the interest of time. The funding controversy was not on the meeting agenda. Bryan said another meeting could be scheduled to discuss the matter more fully if committee members desired.

In his letter to Cobey and Atkinson, Berger wrote that DPI and the State Board of Education advanced its “flawed proposal … potentially behind closed doors and in apparent violation of North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law. These concerns over Open Meetings Law compliance are particularly troubling in light of recent public discussions surrounding challenges other public bodies have faced.”

When asked last week how she and Cobey were delegated the unorthodox authority to make the funding decisions rather than the full State Board of Education acting on it, Atkinson referred Carolina Journal to the State Board of Education’s January minutes in which “the State Board delegated the authority about the budget to the two of us.”