News: CJ Exclusives

Berger ‘Alarmed’ At Shift of Education Funding

Senate leader suggests Atkinson, Cobey may have violated law to protect staffing cuts

Photo image from Shutterstock
Photo image from Shutterstock

State Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said he is “alarmed” that the state Department of Public Instruction and State Board of Education agreed, possibly in violation of state open meetings laws and legislative requirements, to shift funds intended to help children learn to read into maintaining what he calls a “bloated bureaucracy.”

Berger on Monday issued a stinging letter of rebuke to Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson and State Board of Education chairman William Cobey. He demanded that they provide him with a variety of correspondence, meeting minutes, and budget proposals related to the budget dispute.

At issue is a $2.5 million budget cut the General Assembly made to the state Department of Public Instruction, and a legislative demand that DPI spend $3.8 million more in 2015-16, and $8.5 million if 2016-17, to implement the Excellent Public Schools Act expansion.

Berger and others believe DPI may be using money earmarked for the Read to Achieve early grades literacy program and other measures under the Excellent Public Schools Act to fill in gaps and preserve jobs that might be eliminated by the budget cut.

“From an operations standpoint, their budgetary switcharoo may make sense. It does not make sense politically, however,” Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said of the DPI maneuver.

“Lawmakers will likely respond by approving deeper cuts to the DPI budget, which may include the mandatory elimination of specific positions or department-wide personnel reductions,” Stoops said. “It will be a short-term gain but a long-term loss for an already unpopular state agency.”

Indeed, Berger’s displeasure was evident in his letter to Atkinson and Cobey, which he copied to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, State Treasurer Janet Cowell, the Office of State Budget and Management, numerous officials at other state departments, and members of the General Assembly.

“I am alarmed by the apparent failure of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education to implement multiple provisions contained in the 2015 state budget focused on achieving better educational outcomes for students,” Berger wrote.

“I am further concerned that this choice may have been authorized in a closed meeting contrary to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law. I hope the SBE will take action to correct these problems at its February 2016 meeting,” Berger wrote.

He said DPI plans to take “crucial funds designated for helping children learn to read, and using them to preserve DPI’s bloated bureaucracy in clear violation of the budget’s requirement for a reduction in the department’s operating costs.”

He further accused DPI of trying to “cover this up by relabeling existing positions and workload within DPI as additional support for the Excellent Public Schools Act.” That is contrary to “clear direction from the Office of Budget and Management that doing so would be inconsistent with the intent of the budget reduction to DPI and would not accomplish budget expansion of the Excellent Public Schools Act.”

Former state budget director Lee Roberts issued a letter on Oct. 28 to Atkinson, copied to Cobey and DPI Chief Financial Officer Philip Price, that the plans to shift funding were “inconsistent with the intent of the budget reduction as directed by the General Assembly.”

Roberts wrote that “it is clear” the legislature intended to reduce General Fund support for DPI operations to $45.3 million, and that was to be “separate and apart from the additional funding provided to implement the Excellent Public Schools Act.”

The requirement to expand the Excellent Public Schools Act “will not be accomplished if existing positions and workload are simply relabeled as support” for the act, Roberts wrote.

“That’s a live, ongoing budget issue, and so I’m not sure it would be appropriate for me to comment on it,” Roberts said when contacted last week. “I’m confident that it will get resolved.”

“With all due respect to Mr. Roberts. …I’m unclear about what he’s actually trying to convey there,” Atkinson said of his letter. She said DPI met the requirements of the General Assembly’s $2.5 million cut.

Atkinson said DPI sent a response to Roberts’ Oct. 28 letter but did not hear back from him.

Appropriations to DPI “gives us that flexibility to determine how we would organize, and how we would use those dollars to carry out the provisions of the General Assembly’s laws,” Atkinson said.

“With Read to Achieve, it was specified that we would hire people to provide support, and they gave us the salary of those people,” she said. “But the Excellent Schools Act did not have any of those types of direction to us.”

Atkinson said DPI’s new organizational chart shows that responsibility for the Excellent Public Schools Act falls across most of the agency’s departments to meet provisions such as providing assistance to low-performing schools, and to charter schools, and to implement a structure to report the status of public schools on an A through F grading basis.

“This is not the first time we’ve been down this path, ordering people to do things, and what they end up doing is shifting money around so they don’t have to do what they were told to do,” said state Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, a member of the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.

He said that sits “very poorly” with him, recalling as a freshman legislator hearing from an agency that was ordered to make cuts but played a shell game with the funding instead.

“I asked the silly little question, ‘Well, who goes to jail?’ And everybody looked at me like I had two heads,” Horn said.

“I think unrest or unease is pretty light in describing the view of the legislature” on this matter, Horn said.

“There’s a number of legislators, and I’m among them, that don’t look kindly at people who decide which laws they’re going to enforce, and which ones they’re not going to pay attention to,” Horn said.

“At the end of the day, the role of the legislature is to make the law. The role of the departments is to implement the law. And the role of the governor, the executive, is to make sure those rules are implemented,” Horn said. “It’s the standard separation of powers.