LUMBERTON — The speaker of the N.C. House on Thursday vowed that county school superintendents will have to defend their positions to use state money for other reasons than to keep teachers and teacher assistants in the classroom.
Thom Tillis said during a town hall meeting at Robeson Community College that the state’s 2011 budget included enough money to fund all teaching and teacher assistant positions in school districts across the state.
“But we (legislature) didn’t go far enough,” he said, adding that there was “flexibility” for the funding to be used for other purposes.
Tillis said that he has told his staff to review 20-day school district enrollment numbers and compare the figures with last year. The review, he said, will provide such information as teacher-to-student ratios and how positions are funded.
“Every superintendent that shifted funds from the classroom is going to need to have a good explanation,” the speaker said.
Representatives of Progress N.C., whose members have been attending town hall meetings where Tillis has been in attendance, were outside the college building expressing opposition to the state’s education budget cuts.
“Clearly the promises of fully funding education were not met,” said Gerrick Brenner, a spokesman for the group.
State funding cuts for public education was one of the topics raised at Thursday’s five-county town hall meeting. The meeting— covering the counties of Robeson, Hoke, Scotland Bladen and Columbus — was the 15th that Tillis has held across the state.
“I think it is important to look people in the eye and tell them why we did the things we did and what we plan to do in the future,” Tillis said. “I like the hard questions. Some may like my answers and some may not.”
Tillis made no apologies for the unpopular budget-cutting decisions the General Assembly made during its recent long session. He said over a billion dollars in spending had to be cut to balance the budget.
“We have to put our resources where they can get the best results,” he said. “… My job is to make North Carolina more successful.”
Tillis, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, had the task of leading the first GOP-controlled House session in more than 100 years. He said the session lasted 83 legislative days, during which 470 bills were passed.
About 120 people attended Thursday’s town hall meeting, but only six asked Tillis any questions. Education was the major issue, with speakers — including Jessica Lowery, executive director of the Robeson County Partnership for Children — asking that no more cuts be made to pre-school programs and that funding be restored to keep teachers and teacher assistants in the classroom. The Public Schools of Robeson County had to eliminate about 135 teacher assistants.
State Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat representing Robeson, Scotland, and Hoke counties, told Tillis there needs to be a better working relationship between Democrats and the GOP in economic development and job creation.
“The people are suffering,” Pierce said. “At the end of the day we all need to work together.”
Other issues raised included:
—Tillis said that the half-cent sales tax was not maintained because it was a temporary tax which the previous legislature, controlled by Democrats, had implemented.
“We (GOP) had made a commitment to no new taxes,” he said. “If the sales tax had been made permanent at the beginning we would have probably kept it and made up the revenue from other sources.”
— Tillis said restructuring if state departments, particularly the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, is being done because of the cost and time to businesses and individuals meeting regulations that are not “beneficial.”
— Tillis said that legislators are looking at the possibility of cutting or capping the gas tax, as well as looking for other sources of revenues to fund state road projects.
“The gas tax sooner or later is not going to be a viable way of maintaining our roads,” he said. “We have to give serious consideration to tolling and possible local option taxes.”
— Staff writer Bob Shiles can be reached at (910) 272-6117 or email@example.com