‘The horror stories’: NC school systems prepare for 2024 funding cliff

In this 2019 file photo, educators and their supporters protested low education funding at the state legislature in Raleigh. The end of federal COVID relief funds in September has many systems worried about what's next. (Shutterstock)

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By Billy Ball

April 12, 2024

Local school systems used pandemic relief dollars from the federal government to fill holes torn by the pandemic and underfunding from the state. Now those federal dollars are going away.

Schumata Brown has been hearing the “horror stories,” as he calls them.

Brown’s the local school board chair in his native Jones County, N.C. When the federal COVID money dries up in September, his county will, one way or another, feel the pain.

“It’s scary just to hear 21 million, 14 million cuts,” Brown says. “I’m like, fortunately for us, we kind of got ahead of the ball game with that.”

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They’re one of the lucky ones. Congress dispatched almost $200 billion to states during the pandemic. NC got about $3.6 billion. It was meant to help reeling schools transition to remote learning and pandemic life. Come Sept. 30, that money has to be spent with little chance of another federal intervention.

Educators are calling it the “funding cliff.” Local governments develop their budgets in the spring and early summer, so leaders like Brown are standing on the edge of that cliff right now.

Counties like this one used the federal money to fill the holes torn by the pandemic. They fixed HVAC systems. They bought computers to connect kids with teachers. And they paid teachers who might otherwise have quit, teachers who were running virtual classrooms they never imagined they’d run.

Schools used the money on tutoring and summer programs too, because virtual learning and in-person learning aren’t equal. The kids who struggle tend to struggle even more.

“I think when the pandemic began, when the funding was first approved, it was absolutely not clear how much disruption there would be and what would happen to student learning,” Lindsey Dworkin of the Northwest Evaluation Association, a national K-12 assessment nonprofit, told The Hill in March.

Dworkin said another federal intervention is needed. But there’s little hope of another rescue from Congress, even if there was an appetite for it. Congress has struggled to pass bills under divided GOP leadership.

Which means public schools will have to rely on state leaders. And in North Carolina, help from the state legislature could be optimistically described as murky. Republicans in the General Assembly are expanding privatized school options, but public school funding is near the bottom of the nation.

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“Money answers all things”

Brown’s southeastern county is home to about 10,000. It’s old Tuscarora land, a short trip from the Croatan National Forest and the Outer Banks. It’s sparse, scruffy, and swampy—not quite the beach, not quite inland.

And, like many places in this part of the state, it became a plantation county after the Europeans arrived, surrounded by low-lying swamps and coastal forestland. The end of slavery meant the end of relative prosperity. The 20th-century decline of tobacco hurt too, so Jones County, like most rural NC places, is not flush with cash.

“I tell people all the time, our conversations, our ability to do things helps out,” says Brown. “But like the Bible says: ‘Money answers all things.’”

Jones County is fortunate though, he says. The end of September will hurt, he says, but his county was for the most part able to avoid spending the federal money on things they would have to pay for every year. “We anticipated that pain and started it early instead of getting it at the end of these funds.”

When teachers retired, Jones County didn’t fill those positions, he said, or they eliminated positions in other areas. He says his county, like most in the state, needs more support for staff and teachers, but Jones County avoided big funding traps.

That’s sound budgeting. You don’t, ideally, meet recurring expenses with one-time cash. But these were not ideal times, and, while it might not apply to Jones County, this fiscal best practice became one of the first victims of the pandemic in many counties.

School administrators stitched together their budgets during the pandemic out of funds like these.

A 2023 report from K-12 consultants ERS summed up the challenge for states like North Carolina, which have a high percentage of children from low-income families. The federal funds accounted for a relatively high proportion of total K-12 revenue, more than 11%.

At the same time, NC is one of many states cutting taxes in recent years. National budget experts say the loss of state revenue for public services like schools makes for a bad combination as federal funds slow, NC Newsline reported recently.

​​Joanna LeFebvre of the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told The Hill in March that states like NC used “the influx of federal dollars as cover to push permanent tax cuts,” with the federal funds now set to take a hit.

NC Republicans have been slashing taxes for more than a decade, but the 2023 budget “doubled down,” NC Newsline wrote, by moving up personal income tax reductions and other cuts. By 2029, the GOP tax cuts will be costing the state more than $13 billion a year in lost revenue, and it’s likely that public education—the largest portion of the state budget—will feel it most keenly.

State officials told NC lawmakers in February that the biggest hurdles remained for rural districts who rely on the money for tech updates and staffing. “Those funds aren’t going to be growing on trees for them to pluck and use on those valuable tools,” Bruce Mildwurf with the NC School Boards Association told lawmakers, CBS-17 reported.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt recommended local districts offset the loss by applying for federal grants, asking local county commissioners for more funding, or finding funding within their current budget.

It’s notable though that Truitt, a Republican, did not recommend asking for help from the single largest source of public education money—the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly.

“I just think, in a perfect world, you definitely would love unlimited funding,” Brown told Cardinal & Pine. “But we know that our state lawmakers can’t do that. They got budget limits, they got budget limitations and there’s always going to be the debate on how education should be funded. It should be the number one priority though.”

Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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