GREENSBORO — The longer it takes state legislators to agree on driver’s education funding, the longer some Guilford County teens will have to wait to start driving.
Guilford County Schools’ driver’s education program has been suspended since July 1, when related state funding ran out. The Guilford County Board of Education has agreed to pay enough for students waiting to get behind the wheel to complete the course this summer.
For now, there won’t be additional classroom instruction for driver’s education in July or August, Leigh Hebbard, who oversees the program for the school system, told the school board Tuesday night.
That means there will be a backlog.
There are 937 to 1,000 students who still needed to go through the driving portion to complete driver’s education before the new fiscal year began.
The school board agreed to spend about $113,000 so those students can complete the program. That money will come from a share of savings expected from cutting 82 central office positions.
The program could resume in the next week or so for those students, who will have to pay a $65 fee, which the North Carolina Driving School will collect, before they complete the course.
In a best-case scenario, those students could complete driver’s education by the start of the school year, Hebbard said.
The lost classroom time could be recovered in about a year, he said. But if the uncertainty over the budget goes “much beyond that, we’re looking to the second year, maybe, to recover from the backlog.”
“So you’re going to have a lot of 141/2-year-olds just chomping at the bit to get in and won’t be able to because there’s going to be some 15-year-olds who haven’t been in there yet,” he said.
The priority would go to the older students, Hebbard said.
It’s still unknown how much money, if any, the General Assembly will decide to spend on driver’s education in the final state budget. Legislators have discussed different ways of funding the program, lifting the cap on fees school systems can charge and doing away with the requirement.
“We are essentially assuming responsibility for an unfunded mandate,” school board member Sandra Alexander said.
“We’re not assuming the responsibility,” board Chairman Alan Duncan said. “We’ve been by law told we have to accept the responsibility.”
State law requires school systems to provide driver’s education, and it does not limit the program to students in traditional public schools. The state also caps at $65 the fee school systems can charge per student to offset program costs.
Guilford County Schools had not charged students a fee for the program before because it received enough state funding to cover the costs. The school system spends about $1.3 million in state funding to provide driver’s education to about 5,300 teens each year.
Charging the $65 fee would raise almost $345,000, leaving about $1 million for the school system to cover.
The board discussed the driver’s education funding uncertainty during a broader budget conversation. Officials in Guilford, as well as school systems across the state, won’t know their final state funding for the 2015-16 school year until the General Assembly approves a state budget.
For example, the board discussion Tuesday night was related to an estimated $5 million gap between the school system’s county appropriations and the amount needed to sustain operations. The board agreed to cut three paid work days from teacher assistants and other paraprofessionals to save about $390,000 without laying off employees. The budget hole could get even larger depending on the final state budget, Duncan said.
Many unknowns remain about the budget, he said. “It could go dramatically in different directions.”