Principals in North Carolina’s largest school district are warning that teachers and other school employees could be laid off this year unless state lawmakers act to protect against education funding cuts.

State funding is tied to a school’s enrollment, and it’s uncertain how many students will attend before a COVID-19 vaccine is developed. In a letter dated Wednesday, the Wake County Division of Principals And Assistant Principals asked Gov. Roy Cooper and state lawmakers to hold school districts harmless from funding cuts if student enrollment drops.

“Now, we operate in fear of losing critical instructional and support positions due to unanticipated changes in student enrollment in our public schools,” says the letter from Wake’s principals and assistant principals. “Understandably, school staff could not have anticipated such variance to projected student enrollment and our schools simply cannot afford to lay-off or displace highly qualified public school staff because of these unpreventable changes.”

The letter was written by Teresa Caswell, the division’s president and principal of Parkside Elementary School in Morrisville, and Scott Lassiter, the group’s legislative chair and assistant principal of Connections Academy Middle Academy in Cary. The Wake County school system works with the division but it’s a separate organization from the district.

Statewide concerns about funding cuts

The concerns of Wake’s principals were echoed by the State Board of Education, which passed a motion asking lawmakers for protection from school funding cuts. State board chairman Eric Davis made his pitch to a lawmakers at a committee meeting this week, saying many districts are “financially fragile.”

It’s uncertain whether lawmakers will address these concerns when they return to Raleigh next week. Legislative staff said that a district might lose 2% to 4% of its state funding if its enrollment drops 10% this year. The state looks at whether enrollment during the first two months of the school year met the projections used to provide funding.

“It’s not just a straight cut, meaning that if the numbers go down it’s not as draconian as it seems,” Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican and House education leader, said at Tuesday’s legislative committee meeting.

More than 70% of North Carolina’s 1.5 million public school students started the new school year last week with remote instruction because the majority of school districts said it’s not yet safe to resume in-person classes. Districts have modified their attendance policies to reflect how many students are now learning online instead of on campus.

Wake County is temporarily reassigning hundreds of cafeteria workers and transportation employees to other duties to avoid laying them off. But that’s tied into how they can’t do their normal jobs while schools are only using remote learning.

Enrollment less at some schools

Wake County’s enrollment numbers so far haven’t been publicly released. But figures from neighboring Johnston County indicate that enrollment drops may be a reality.

Johnston is normally a growing school district. But its enrollment on Wednesday was 544 students down from the same point in time last school year.

Wake’s principals say state funding shouldn’t be cut because any enrollment reductions “are simply temporary.”

“Once pandemic conditions improve, students and families will return to our schools and student enrollment will restore to pre-pandemic letters,” the division says in its letter. “A reduction in school staffing and funding now would then result in schools being unable to appropriately and adequately staff classrooms and support resources once we return to school.”

Other Triangle districts not as worried

School officials in other Triangle districts didn’t seem to be as outwardly concerned.

Durham Public Schools is working with statewide professional organizations to meet district needs during an “unprecedented health and safety crisis,” spokesman Chip Sudderth said in an email. The district has not asked the governor or legislature for any particular steps yet, he said.

The state projected in March that Durham could serve 40,553 students this school year, up from 40,145 students last year.

Orange County Schools officials did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials have been talking about the issue of enrollment and state funding for weeks, spokesman Jeff Nash said. The district doesn’t have all of its attendance numbers yet, but doesn’t expect a significant difference in this year’s state funding compared with last year, he said.

The state projected in March that Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools would serve 12,227 students this school year, compared with 12,274 students last school year.

“We expect we’re going to come in close to where we were last year with projections, and we’re pretty much a stable growth district,” he said. “We usually can predict within a hundred kids how many are coming each year.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.

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