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It's widely agreed that North Carolina needs to improve public education. So why is Gov. Jim Martin contemplating budget cuts that could have the draconian effect of shortening class time in a number of counties around the state?The answer, of course, is that North Carolina's budget is expected to come up more than $400 million short when receipts are tabulated at the end of June. To help save money, Governor Martin has asked school districts to share in cost-cutting.

The operative question is, cut back on what? With only six weeks left in the school year, most of the districts have already spent the lion's share of state allocations. The alternatives for reducing expenses are few.

One school district, Wake County, has suggested shutting schools down a few days early this spring. Others - including a number of Triad school systems - are considering abbreviating summer school, or closing it altogether.

Governor Martin accuses school superintendents of posturing. He believes less drastic - and less visible - cuts could be made. But savings that count up into the millions in some of the state's largest school districts cannot be found easily on such short notice. Smaller districts are at a disadvantage because they typically don't have local tax supplements to lean on.

In any case, if better schools are one of this state's fundamental goals, it doesn't make sense to approve increases for education, only to take them back at the first sign of trouble.

``I've got to ask everybody to do what they can to help out, and that means everybody,' Martin says. He worries that other state agencies will mutiny if schools aren't asked to share the burden.

But it's the job of leadership to set priorities and to protect programs at the top from the corrosive effects of budget politics. Across-the-board budget slashing will certainly make the governor's job easier, but it deprives school children of the education they have been promised.

Already North Carolina has backed off the promise of school reform. The Basic Education Program was cut last year, and teacher salary increases are threatened by the budget shortfall. If Martin and the legislature are serious about improving schools, as they should be, its time to stand firm against competing interests and guarantee the schools the money they need.


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