As community activists, parents, teachers and local elected leaders met to talk budget cuts Friday afternoon, N.C. Rep. H.M. "Mickey" Michaux (D-Durham) offered a bit of hopeful news—that in its proposed budget, the N.C. House would allow for $126 million in lottery funds to go to save teacher jobs across the state. That could help restore 237 teacher jobs in Durham currently threatened by funding cuts.
The House still has to vote on the budget, and will do that next week, said Michaux, one of several state legislators, Durham county commissioners and school board members who attended the meeting. It was a "town hall"-style question-and-answer session for the community called by the Umbrella Coalition, an activist group from Hillside High School that has been vocal in the past several months about budget cuts to Durham Public Schools.
"If you use that money properly, we will not have to lose any teachers in this school system," Michaux said. Currently, education lottery funds are only used locally for physical improvements to schools and their infrastructure.
Perhaps the most promising part of this news was that about $1.2 million in lottery money from this fiscal year that already has been tentatively assigned to school projects might now be used to save teacher jobs. Above that $1.2 million, there's an additional balance of lottery funds due to Durham County from the lottery, said County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. She's not sure of the exact balance.
Upon receiving this news from Michaux, the audience mumbled, then applauded.
Minnie Forte-Brown, chairwoman of the Durham school board, looked around at her colleagues, saying "We've got the money. There's our money."
"Not so fast," grumbled one parent sitting in the audience.
With the promising news from Michaux, came bad news — that $488 million our state had expected from the federal government for a Medicaid program had just this afternoon been cut out of a U.S. House bill. Budget proposals from the governor and both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly had been counting on that money. The U.S. Senate has yet to vote on the matter, Michaux said.
The two-hour meeting produced a lot of questions and some answers from state officials on possible revenue increases, such as progressive income taxes, taxes on services and "sin" items such as cigarettes and alcohol and new options for local taxation for counties.
What's clear, said state Sen. Bob Atwater (D-Chatham, Durham, Lee) is that the state's model for revenues, including taxes, is outdated. Support for tax reform is not robust, he said.
"The revenue system that we have now is from the Depression," Atwater said. And when it comes to reform, "the political will is not there."