Rural North Carolinians Get Involved in State Budget Process

Last Updated: June 27, 2009

This article appeared in the June 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
The North Carolina Rural Education Working Group (NC REWG) wants state budget cuts to be made in ways that will do the least harm to students in the most challenging rural settings.
“Unless rural people develop a voice to address their issues and concerns they will be left out of the discussion and receive inadequate funding to address their needs,” says NC REWG member Anthony Clark. NC REWG is made up of residents of rural communities who are working to improve educational opportunities for children in some of the state’s poorest places.
With a $4 billion shortfall, North Carolina faces severe budget deficits. How that shortfall will be met and where cuts will be made, however, are still up in the air.

Severe Cuts 

“The budget cuts are causing us to lose teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs,” says Robert Williams, also an NC REWG member. “Our efforts are focused on dropout prevention, which will be negatively affected by the cuts.”  
Early on, legislators proposed “furloughing” teachers, reducing the total number of days for which teachers get paid. That idea was shot down, although it is re-surfacing as the state continues to wrestle with its financial dilemmas.
The state is also considering cuts that would force the layoff of many non-tenured teachers and the elimination of a number of programs. Up for severe reduction or elimination is everything from funding for textbooks and transportation to funding for low-wealth and small districts and funding for exceptional children.

“As a Group We Decided to Advocate”    

At its regular meeting earlier this month, members of NC REWG decided to take a stand together on how the state should address its financial situation.
After a long discussion they agreed that maintaining promising programs and keeping class sizes relatively small would be the best way to meet the educational needs of students during this recession, especially in low-wealth and high-poverty school districts.
“We compiled our list by noting recurrent common concerns,” says Williams, adding that the list also reflected the thinking of students, parents, educators, and other local residents who had participated in study circle meetings with NC REWG members in some communities.
Clark also emphasizes the common concerns of NC REWG members. “The process brought several different points of view to the table. Most people wanted the same thing: at a minimum maintaining the current level of service, not eliminating programs.”
The group agreed that they would begin contacting legislators and ask them to raise revenue to blunt the cuts to education by increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco, closing corporate loopholes, and making the income tax more progressive. “As a group we decided to advocate,” says Clark. 
If cuts are necessary, NC REWG members decided that furloughing teachers for up to five non-instructional days would be a better alternative than massive layoffs, which would force the elimination of critical programs and increase average class size. “The options floating before committee are to either eliminate a number of vital education programs or cut the number of days of employment for teachers to help balance the budget,” explains Clark. “We chose to cut the number of days of employment as our position and not eliminate programs. Eliminating programs hurts the children.”
Further, the group agreed that funding for low-wealth districts, small districts, transportation, at-risk students, exceptional children, and textbooks should be the last components of state education spending to be cut. These priorities are also part of their message to legislators.
“Since our last meeting, the NC REWG has been contacting our legislators and expressing our concerns about how all these issues effect the education of children in North Carolina,” says Williams. “Governor Beverly Perdue called on lawmakers to raise an additional $1 to $1.5 billion to avoid drastic cuts to North Carolina’s public schools, community colleges, and universities. We like to think our efforts contributed to her actions.”

Good Data, Participating in Government

Both Williams and Clark emphasize the importance of getting and understanding good data as an essential part of advocating with lawmakers. “Accessing information through public channels offers you the same perspective to formulate your opinions and positions on the same facts and data as legislators,” says Clark.
“The NC REWG has provided a national as well as local network of advocates who hold rural education very near to our hearts because of the love for our children,” says Williams. “We are able to get help in the form of data-based documents that can be used to illustrate our concerns to legislators.
“Actively participating in government is critical,” says Clark. “Volunteering to serve on committees, attending public meetings, doing research, having private conversations with public officials allows you to gain information and credibility. Attending budget planning meetings allows you to gain perspective around how the budget is constructed.” 
“The work we do is a labor of love and is needed in all of our communities,” concludes Williams.
Hats off to these rural citizens for their work to make sure that some of the state’s most educationally vulnerable students are represented during a time when far-reaching school funding decisions are being made.
Budget woes take a new twist in South Carolina. Read Marty’s Strange’s editorial South Carolina Court Orders Governor Sanford to Let His People Go
Read more from the June 2009 Rural Policy Matters.