Forsyth budget forum focuses on potential cuts in education

by Keith Barber

NC Rep. Earline Parmon (far right) and Sen. Linda Garrou (second from right), along with Rep. Larry Womble,  co-hosted a budget forum for Forsyth County residents at Winston-Salem City Hall on March 17. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

A budget forum hosted by three members of the Forsyth County delegation to the NC General Assembly rapidly evolved into a rally for citizens opposed to potential cuts in public education and a number of other state-supported programs currently on the chopping block as state legislators craft the 2011-2012 fiscal year budget. Rep. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth), Rep. Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth) and state Sen. Linda Garrou (D-Forsyth) encouraged those in attendance at the March 17 budget forum to lobby their Republican legislators to spare education and other social programs from proposed cuts or possible elimination.

“We don’t think there need to be any cuts in education, period,” Parmon said. “Education is the great equalizer. It’s the foundation and if we are going to be competitive in a global world, it just doesn’t make sense to cut education. That’s where we stand.”

Womble, Parmon and Garrou focused on the differences between Gov. Beverly Perdue’s proposed 2011-2012 budget and the budget targets of various Republican controlled subcommittees in the NC General Assembly. Perdue has submitted a budget that allocates $11,247,178,269 for education in the coming fiscal year. Womble, Parmon and Garrou said state Republicans are seeking to drastically cut education spending.

Kerry Crutchfield, the retired finance director of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said the governor’s base budget already cuts $12 million from Forsyth County schools. The subcommittee reductions would cut another $25 million from the school system’s budget. In addition, the county will be losing $6 million in federal grant funding for education this year, Crutchfield said.

“All of this is going to drastically impact students in this county,” he said. “If we have to make these drastic cuts in health and education, I really wish the General Assembly would consider an across-the-board pay cut [for teachers] in lieu of cutting teacher [jobs].”

Rep. Larry Brown (R-Forsyth) disputed Womble, Parmon and Garrou’s estimates of Republican spending targets, saying his understanding is that the majority party is working to maintain funding of K-12 education as much as possible considering the projected budget shortfall of $3.9 billion.

“Education is a No. 1 priority,” Brown said.

“So we have to do everything we can within our means to fund education. That does not mean we can give them everything they want.”

Brown said he believes the majority of cuts in education will affect the University of North Carolina system. Brown said he doesn’t believe it’s possible to balance the budget without cutting education, considering education comprises more than 50 percent of state spending.

Brown said Democrats’ proclivity for taxing and spending put the state in its current fiscal predicament.

“They tax and tax and spend and spend and don’t want to take accountability; that’s what Republicans want to correct,” Brown said.

House Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth) said the governor’s budget is underfunded and several of her proposals are not “mathematically sound.”

“Officially, the state is broke and broken, which is distinctively different,” Folwell said. “We have policies and procedures that perversely incent the wrong behavior. It is like peeling an onion, the more you peel it the more you cry. Our budget numbers are below [Gov. Perdue’s] for many reasons, but the bottom line is that the election was about many things, but two are debt and a fear about what is not being told about the state of the state. We have a government that we can’t afford and we are tasked with cleaning up the mess.”

A number of citizens raised concerns about the possibility of drastic cuts to early education programs such as Smart Start and More At Four.

Chuck Kraft, executive director of Smart Start & More At Four of Forsyth County, said state Republicans have recommended the consolidation or elimination of the two early education programs that serve nearly 1,000 children in Forsyth County. Cutting the program would mean the loss of $9 million in education funding and 170 jobs in Forsyth County, Kraft said.

Teressa Beam, a pre-kindergarten program specialist for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said 462 children in Forsyth would be affected by cuts to early education programs.

Brown said he’s heard talk in the General Assembly of consolidating the two early-education programs but emphasized that he’s a strong supporter of early childhood education. However, he believes both Smart Start and More At Four are facing significant budget cuts this year.

“Cuts in any department or program are going to be painful,” Brown said.

Kim Nelson said her son has benefited greatly from the More At Four program, and that if the program is eliminated the success rate of disabled students will drop dramatically.

“They can’t speak for themselves; we have to speak for them,” Nelson said.

A number of speakers stated their opposition to proposed cuts by state Republicans to the arts, nonprofits and health and human services.

Susan Little of the Winston-Salem Foundation said the arts provides more than 3,700 jobs in Forsyth County, so any cuts to arts funding would be devastating. Patrick O’Steen, a drama professor at the UNC School of the Arts, said budget cuts imposed over the past several years have severely hampered the schools design and production program. Gabriel Brown, a senior, said he’s concerned about the impact of deeper budget cuts this year on students and faculty.

Ellen Rosenberg, faculty chair at the school, argued that funding for public education is not welfare, but an investment in the state’s future.

“If you don’t have young people, you don’t have a future,” Rosenberg said. “We are here to make sure that the culture of society is carried forward to the next generations.”

Rosenberg encouraged the citizens in attendance to share their concerns to those not in the room, specifically, Republican lawmakers.

“Who’s going to step up and replace you when you’ve had enough of this?” Rosenberg asked. “It’s going to be someone in one of those Head Start programs right now, so please speak outside of this room. Tell them we are struggling — there should be no cuts whatsoever in education.”

A number of speakers asked Womble, Parmon and Garrou to support certain bills currently under consideration and oppose others. John Burroughs of the Autism Society of America encouraged the lawmakers to push hard for Senate Bill 115, which would require health benefit plans to provide coverage for autism disorders.

Perdue’s budget allocates $430,543,973 for general government; $4,715,218,097 for health and human services; $2,206,925,331 for justice and public safety; $407,146,517 for natural and economic resources; $4,535,000 for capital improvements; $697,953,568 for debt service; and $193,047,342 for reserves and adjustments. Womble, Parmon and Garrou said Republicans are looking to drastically cut funding in all areas of the state budget.

Winston-Salem City Councilman Derwin Montgomery echoed the sentiments of a number of citizens who expressed their belief that elected officials should not try to balance the budget by cutting education and other essential services.

“We know that we’re facing difficult economic times, that there have to be cuts made, but [the budget] cannot be cut on the backs of poor people, [it] cannot be cut on the backs of our students, [it] cannot be cut on the backs of those who have no voice to speak up,” Montgomery said.

Parmon expressed frustration with the Republican majority in Raleigh, saying that Democratic lawmakers have tried to work with their colleagues in a bipartisan way but to no avail.

“We are faced every day with a majority that tells us they have a mandate from the people to cut education, to cut nonprofits, to cut healthcare,” Parmon said. “So if you gave them the mandate, you need to make it clear that it wasn’t a mandate to take these services away that make our citizens great. It’s up to you all.”

Brown disagreed with Parmon’s characterization.

“We had a mandate to cut government, cut regulations and live within our means,” Brown said.

Sharee Fowler, one of the founders of Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment, or CHANGE, asked Womble, Parmon and Garrou for advice on a strategy for citizens who want lawmakers to know that cuts to education and other essential social programs are unacceptable.

Womble responded by holding up the 1960 Winston-Salem sit-in demonstrations as a model to follow for citizens who wish to actively lobby Republican lawmakers in Raleigh.

Womble said the best way to influence the decision-makers is by decisive action, planning and organizing, building coalitions and by crafting an effective message to state Republicans.

“Visit your legislators,” Womble said.

“You’ve got to let them know there’s opposition here.”

Parmon promised that she would assist citizens who are looking to organize in opposition to the proposed budget cuts, saying it was not a Republican or Democratic issue. Garrou suggested citizens e-mail Republican lawmakers in a timely manner as the budget is being crafted. In the meantime, Democrats must develop a clear, consistent message to inform the public of what’s at stake in the ongoing budget battle, she added.

“[Republicans] have sold this message of big government is not working for you,” Garrou said. “We need some of you smart people to help us come up with some bumper sticker phrases that will make a difference.”