Dell refund should go to schools

by Jim Longworth

Earlier this month during his visit to Charlotte, President Obama announced, “We are beginning to turn the corner.” His statement followed the release of a Labor Department report showing that 162,000 nonfarm jobs had been created in March. The president’s optimism was understandable because this time last year, we were losing 750,000 jobs per month. But there are several reasons why we shouldn’t buy into Obama’s analysis.

First of all, nearly one-third of those new jobs he cited were comprised of Census workers, who will once again be unemployed in a few months. Second, an everincreasing number of people have stopped looking for work that doesn’t exist, which means they don’t show up in the unemployment figures. As a result, the actual unemployment rate is close to 16 percent. Third, what little progress we’ve made to temporarily stabilize our economy is due in large measure to the $787 billion stimulus package, and that money is all but gone. That brings us to the crisis in education.

Over the past year, public school systems throughout the nation have relied on stimulus monies to keep them afloat, but now they must prepare to cope without benefit of those funds. Thus far, 29 states and the District of Columbia have announced significant cutbacks.

• Georgia is cutting $444 million from its total K-12 budget.

• Nevada is eliminating funding for gifted and talented programs.

• Illinois is reducing funding for early childhood education.

• Maryland is going to cut health clinics as well as math and science initiatives.

• Massachusetts is slashing programs for special needs kids.

• In Michigan, the city of Detroit is poised to shutter 44 schools at the end of June.

Here in North Carolina, we’re already operating with overcrowded classrooms and 3,700 fewer teachers than last year, and that’s with the stimulus money. Charlotte and other cities have been particularly hard hit. Not so in Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, where stimulus money and expert financial guidance from the system’s CFO have avoided the necessity for layoffs.

But that will change this Fall if someone doesn’t ride in on a white horse with a bunch of cash. That’s because Gov. Beverly Perdue (who had already absconded with some of the Education Lottery money to rescue state shortfalls) announced that WS- FCS would have to cut $5.4 million from its budget. That was followed by Forsyth County commissioners predicting they would have to pull back $2 million from the schools. And last week, the governor revised her estimates, demanding that Superintendent Don Martin slash $10.6 million from his budget, not the $5.4 million as originally required. That means Winston-Salem/Forsyth is now facing a deficit of at least $13 million for the upcoming school year. According to school CFO Kerry Crutchfield, these cuts could eventually result in the loss of up to 100 teachers and dozens of support staff, plus significant furloughs for others. The Winston-Salem Journal editorial staff put it best: “Firing teachers to save money is akin to eating our seed corn”. Fortunately, it may not come to that if local officials direct some newfound money to the schools.

Back in 2005, state and local governments gave Dell over $30 million in various incentives to locate a plant in Forsyth County. But Dell’s recent closure required the company to refund $7.9 million to the county, and another $15.5 million to the city. It’s a no-brainer. The two governing bodies should simply transfer the bulk of those refunds to the schools. But sometimes brains are in short supply. Some commissioners have suggested we use the Dell money to reduce property tax, but that would only net each county resident about $23. Others have proposed to spend the refund on a “jobs” program. But what better jobs program is there than one which keeps hundreds of people off the unemployment rolls? As Superintendent Martin told me, in using the Dell money, “We would be saving jobs now, and preparing young people for jobs later.”

City/county officials are sitting on top of a $23 million windfall, and there’s no reason why $13 million of that can’t be sent to the schools immediately.

Failure to do so would be tantamount to malfeasance, and voters would be justified in turning out any elected official who neglected to protect hundreds of education jobs. The Dell refund represents taxpayer dollars that could have gone to schools in the first place, so transferring them now makes sense. To do otherwise just doesn’t compute.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).