What Budget Cuts Mean for Third Graders in a Rural School

An elementary school in North Carolina illustrates some of the many challenges facing public schools across the country.

Preston Carraway, right, and his classmates, from left, Eric Guerrero, Rashad Dodd and Peyton Murray, worked on a timed math exercise at West Greene Elementary School.CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times

At 7:50 on a recent morning, Preston Carraway greeted his third-grade teacher, Keshia Speight, who stood at the classroom door dispensing hugs. Mrs. Speight’s class has a motto, which everyone chants in the morning when she raises her fist: “Be brave! Be smart! Stay humble!”

That last point doesn’t seem like a stretch.

Preston, 8, goes to West Greene Elementary School in Snow Hill, a town of 1,500 in rural Greene County, N.C. Of the 100 counties in the state, Greene is one of the poorest. About four out of five public school students come from low-income families. Only three counties in North Carolina spend less on public education.

All around Preston were signs of how little money his district has. West Greene is one of many schools across the country dealing with the effects of funding cuts, from broken-down buses to donated supplies to teachers who work second jobs. In other North Carolina counties, and in five other states, teachers frustrated by these issues have walked out of their classrooms in recent months to protest state lawmakers.

Students in Keshia Speight’s third-grade class took a “brain break.”CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times

But the adults at West Greene have worked hard to conceal their struggles from Preston and his classmates. Teachers here said they felt they could address their needs locally, without getting involved in state politics, even though many said they were unhappy about their salaries and the school’s tight budget. Their detachment from the protests suggested that there were limits to the walkout movement, whose organizers are trying to mobilize voters ahead of midterm elections.

Rebekah Copenhaver filled out a maintenance report after the bus she was driving broke down on its way to school. CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times

For one, teachers don’t hit students anymore, Preston’s grandma, Karen Canada, pointed out. The demographics of the area have shifted, too. There are more Latino immigrants who work in agriculture and food processing, and some of their children enroll in school. “We don’t care if they’re black, white, Mexican,” said Ms. Canada, who is white and works as a home health aide.

But she wondered if maybe some other people did care. Taxes might be higher, she thought, if “old-school money” types were more willing to pay for the schools that regular people’s children attended.

While paperbacks and textbooks — some of which are 15 years old — line the walls of Preston’s classroom, he spends a lot of time looking at a screen, either on a Chromebook or at the front of the classroom, where a large interactive display hangs.

On that morning, some of Preston’s schoolmates were running late. A bus had broken down for the fifth time in five months, the driver said, and had to get repaired before it could pick up students.

Preston took his chair off the top of his desk and stared down a practice math exam. What was the value of n in the equation 267 + n = 613? State standardized testing was two weeks away. “Everything we do from this point? It’s crunchtime,” Mrs. Speight told the class.

Mrs. Speight, left, made copies for Clara Knight, a substitute teacher. Mrs. Speight bought the printer with her own money, and replacement cartridges aren’t cheap.CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times

Everyone at West Greene knows Mrs. Speight is special. She won teacher of the year in just her second year on the job.

She’s 45 and earns about $37,000 per year. That’s more than $21,000 less than the national average and $12,000 less than the state average. She has $25,000 of student debt.

Aljahmier Hill, left, and Trey Rodgers, third-grade students at West Greene Elementary.CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times

Greene County has been big on technology since 2003. The district’s push to buy computers and tablets was meant, in part, to save money: Subscriptions to online materials are less expensive than physical books. But hardware gets old quickly and needs to be replaced, a big expense. To cut costs, the district has shifted from laptops to iPads to Chromebooks.

Preston, whose father is a carpenter, can connect to the internet at home, with a tablet. But many of his classmates can’t.

Mrs. Speight has mixed feelings about the computers. She knows most students don’t have a laptop or desktop at home, so learning to use one at school is crucial. Still, parents tell her that without a textbook to page through, they don’t understand what their children are learning or how to help. She tries to make up for it by printing, printing, printing.

Mrs. Speight and her students at recess. The basketball hoops outside have worn nets, and the swing set has rusted handles, with one of the seats detached.CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times

Principals often tell Patrick Miller, the superintendent, that they’d rather hire educators than purchase new technology. There isn’t always money to do both. North Carolina schools get most of their money from the state. They have less of it now, adjusted for inflation, than they did before the recession, because of tax cuts and rising costs for health care and pensions.

Wealthy areas have been able to make up for the lost funds through property taxes. Orange County, home to Chapel Hill, supplements state school money with an additional $4,852 per student. Greene County supplements it with just $736 per student.

“I never imagined that after the recession, we would be in a situation where I have to think people versus devices,” Dr. Miller said.

Books lined the shelves of the library.CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times

By 9:45 a.m., the class had earned what Mrs. Speight called a “brain break.” Test prep was hard work. On the big screen in the front of the room, Mrs. Speight projected a music video called “Do the Disco.” A boy named Justin rushed to the front to lead the way. A girl named Meredith flipped her long hair out of her face and did the running man. Preston grinned, clapping his hands and rolling his arms. He wore a gray T-shirt that read “Can’t Be Stopped!”

Later, Mrs. Speight paired the children off to solve math word problems in 20 seconds or less, using the Chromebooks and an app called Kahoot. The software allowed Mrs. Speight to see, in real time, how many students got each answer correct. She projected a leader board that ranked the pairs, igniting a fierce competition.

Preston and his partner, Peyton, were winning, until the app accidentally logged them out. Preston’s eyes got big. It wasn’t fair.

But the day was mostly a good one. Preston visited the school’s airy library, which had comfy rocking chairs, stuffed animals and hundreds of books. He chose three to take home for the week, including “Christmas in Camelot.” It was May and over 90 degrees outside.

There used to be a full-time library assistant here to help students select books and check them out. The assistant now works half time. The district once paid for teachers to participate in National Board Certification, a prestigious professional development program, but no longer has the money to do so.

An after-school tutoring program recently ended when the grant that was paying for it ran out. Now there are no after-school activities, though the district does partner with the Boys and Girls Club to run a summer science program, paid for by a philanthropy.

Lesly Lopez, left, and Meredith Stepp played on the swing set.CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times
On the playground, Eric guarded a soccer goal that was losing its net.CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times

As Preston and his classmates had pizza, apple sauce and milk for lunch in the cafeteria, Mrs. Speight and two other third-grade teachers sat nearby and talked. They regretted the loss of the after-school program, which they thought their students really needed. In a state without teacher collective bargaining, they weren’t quite comfortable walking out to protest in Raleigh that week, as sympathetic as they were to the protesters. The end of the school year — preparing their students for testing — was just too important.

Mrs. Speight followed Preston and his classmates out to recess. The basketball hoops had worn nets, and the swing set had rusted handles, with one of the seats detached. A local Lowe’s had donated two mini-soccer goals, but they were falling apart.

West Greene students take music, art and physical education every week. After recess on Mondays, Mrs. Speight’s class goes to gym. The teacher, Tonya Winfield, had set up an elaborate obstacle course. Preston threw a rubber chicken through a hoop while his friends did push-ups, jumped rope and shot basketballs.

Ms. Winfield had fund-raised for most of the equipment the children were using. She works a second job in landscaping to earn extra money.

“Boys and girls, I am proud of your teamwork today,” Ms. Winfield said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Preston replied before heading back to Mrs. Speight’s class.

From left, Laura Brown, Lisa Taylor and Dawn Roberson, teachers at West Greene Elementary, discussed the statewide teacher walkout happening later that week in Raleigh.CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times

Mrs. Speight has been taking classes to earn a master’s degree. She’ll graduate in August and may not be teaching at all next year. Her likely new job as a curriculum coach, mentoring teachers, won’t necessarily pay more, but it will come with less paperwork. That will leave her more time, she thinks, to earn extra money by teaching online college courses.

Karen Canada with her grandson, Preston. Ms. Canada said she prayed that Preston would go to college, so he could find a good job outside Greene County. CreditMadeline Gray for The New York Times

Field Notes: How to Save on Wedding Flowers


The founders of Bloomerent, Julia Capalino, left, and Danit Zamir, right, with the florist Carly Ragosta, demonstrating how flowers are reused from the first wedding to the next.

When Nathalie Guedes and her husband, Christopher Zardoya, were planning their wedding at 501 Union in Brooklyn, N.Y., they knew they wanted flowers — and lots of them. “We’re both from Miami, so we’re used to tropical plants and flowers everywhere,” she said. Still, they didn’t want to spend too much money. Centerpieces and bouquets are often thrown away after the night ends, and as architects, they believe strongly in sustainability.

“Weddings can be so wasteful, so we tried to reuse as much as we could,” said Ms. Guedes, who budgeted $2,000 for florals. She and her husband used discarded squares of marble from finished architectural projects to make decorative table number plaques and seating number assignments. Then Ms. Guedes discovered Bloomerent, a company that finds ways for brides and grooms to share wedding flowers. “We loved that our flowers would have a second life,” she said. And, of course, they saved cash.


Couples can save thousands of dollars in these rent-back arrangements.

My Flowers Are Now Your Flowers

Here’s how it works: If you sign up with one of 60 participating Bloomerent florists, brides and grooms can rent back their wedding flowers to another couple locally, with florists picking up the designs at the completion of one wedding and delivering it to another wedding for use the following day. (Currently, the company works with florists in 26 states and the District of Columbia.) The reward: big savings on flowers for both brides. The first bride receives a 10 percent refund on the total cost of her flowers, while the second bride pays 40 to 60 percent of the original cost. (So if the flowers originally cost $10,000, the second bride is paying only $4,000 to $6,000, and the first bride gets $1,000 back.)

When Ms. Guedes’s industrial modern affair wrapped one Friday night in November, the long strands of greenery that lined the extra long communal tables at her wedding were set up at Patty Lee’s wedding — a complete stranger to Ms. Guedes — the next day at the Brooklyn Winery. Here, the same strands of floral garland were also used to decorate long communal tables. “You couldn’t tell — our florist did such a good job refreshing them,” said Ms. Lee, a freelance food writer.


Nathalie Guedes and Christopher Zardoya opted to have their floral arrangements recycled for another couple.

Everyone wants their wedding to be beautiful, and florals are often considered crucial when completing the look and feel of a ceremony and reception space. But couples get sticker shock when they realize just how much those overflowing centerpieces they saw on Pinterest actually cost. They begin to wonder if there is any way to get the costs down, and the good news is, even beyond Bloomerent, there are.

Picky, Picky, Picky. Don’t Be.

Erica Jones, the creative director of O Luxe Designs, a Boston-based wedding design company that caters to high-end clients around the world, says that floral budgets climb when couples meet with a florist with very specific ideas, often gleaned from a glossy social media post or swoon-worthy magazine spread. “You’ll save money by going in with an open mind,” she said. You should still bring the photo, but ask how you can realistically achieve the look within your budget. Maybe the floral designer can suggest a similar color scheme using less expensive flowers, or maybe the flowers in the photo are particularly expensive at that time of year, but a similar flower is less at the same time.


The ultimate way to save money is to do the flowers yourself, but wedding planners discourage this option.

Sometimes a simple adjustment can save hundreds or thousands of dollars. Ranunculus flowers, which are often considered timeless and ephemeral, are readily available most of the year, but one popular variety, the Clooney, is available only for a few weeks, making them extra expensive. South American hydrangeas, which are white, light blue and pale green, are significantly less expensive than hydrangeas from Holland, which come in more vibrant shades of blue, pink and purple.

Continue reading the main story

New York Envisions a State-Run Retirement Plan for Private Workers


The state budget that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected to sign includes a program to create a state retirement option for private sector employees without 401(k)-like programs at work.

Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

New York is close to joining a growing list of states that are creating a retirement plan option for private sector employees who do not have access to 401(k)-like programs at work.

The New York program was included in Friday’s budget deal, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected to sign. The plan would enable businesses to provide workers with access to Roth individual retirement accounts overseen by the state. An estimated 3.5 million private sector employees in New York work for employers that do not offer a pension, a 401(k) plan or another savings option, according to AARP, which has lobbied in support of the plans.

“For years, we have been working to develop and pass a retirement program that would give millions of New Yorkers the opportunity to save for their futures,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. “In this year’s budget, we proposed and passed a common-sense, progressive reform that will strengthen our work force.”

Ten states, including New York, are on the verge of enacting such plans or already have them. The plans have been moving ahead even though Congress rolled back Obama-era rules meant to encourage states to create retirement programs for people without workplace savings accounts.

Oregon was the first state to begin rolling out its program last summer, and several other states are in varying stages of progress. Besides New York, they are California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington, according to the Center for Retirement Initiatives at Georgetown University.

Continue reading the main story

Albany Strikes Deal on a Budget That Sidesteps Trump’s Tax Plan


Many of the elements in the massive $168 billion budget deal were scaled-back versions of promises Mr. Cuomo had laid out, as discussions on more divisive political issues were pushed back.

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

ALBANY — After months of promises to defy Washington and blaze a progressive trail, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Friday announced a deal on a new state budget that would grant New Yorkers some protection from the Republican-steered federal tax plan, pour a quarter-billion dollars into public housing projects and enact a raft of new sexual harassment policies.

The agreement, coming after several days of negotiations with little noticeable progress, was a victory for Mr. Cuomo, who is rumored to have presidential aspirations, and who made his scorn for President Trump’s policies — particularly the federal tax plan — a centerpiece of his State of the State and budget addresses in January, and in speeches ever since.

“We’re under attack by the federal government,” Mr. Cuomo said on Friday night, sitting in the ceremonial Red Room in the State Capitol.

As he had done for months, the governor singled out a cap on deductibility of state, local and property taxes, a major issue in his high-tax state, and something he referred to as “an arrow aimed at the economic heart of New York.”

Mr. Cuomo’s vivid rhetoric belied the more muted reality of the budget language, which provided for an optional employer-side payroll tax to replace an employee-side state income tax, and the ability for localities to establish charities to funnel property tax payments to schools, allowing such payments to be deductible on residents’ federal returns.

Mr. Cuomo seemed to acknowledge that his maneuvers could only do so much, saying his priority going forward would be to overturn that part of the new federal tax law.

“This provision hurts every New Yorker, period,” he said. “The ultimate solution is repeal.”

Many of the elements in the massive $168 billion budget deal were scaled-back versions of promises Mr. Cuomo had laid out over the past few months. Indeed, as budget negotiations — which are conducted behind closed doors between the governor and three top legislative leaders, out of sight of even other lawmakers — unfolded over the past week, it became increasingly clear that the Legislature would punt policy issues such as gun control or criminal justice reform to after the budget’s April 1 deadline, in favor of financial considerations. Republicans in the State Senate, control of which is expected to hotly contested this fall, had fought hard against any new taxes and fees and were able to claim a win on that account, as well as many deferred social policies.

Continue reading the main story