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School officials face tough choices

WINDSOR – There’s money in the bank account, but perhaps not enough to go around.

Bertie County Public Schools (BCPS) officials realize that tough choices lie ahead in a system that is hurting from declining student enrollment, which results in reductions in state funding, while facing escalating costs.

Over recent years, the Bertie Board of Education has approved the use of the system’s unreserved fund balance to help pay the bills. At the end of the 2003-04 fiscal year, nearly $689,000 was designated from this fund for use for the following year’s budget. The same scenario occurred at the end of the 2004-05 year where 548,776 was earmarked for use for the subsequent year’s (2005-06) budget.

Now, the BCPS unreserved fund balance stands at a mere $25,178. It has been noted for a school system of its size, BCPS should have roughly $1.25 in this fund.

“In order to have enough funds to operate the school system, it has been necessary to use the fund balance, the school system’s savings account,” Bertie School Board member Gary Cordon said during a press conference held last week at the BCPS central office.

Cordon, reading from a prepared statement, continued, “This is not a good situation and points to the fact that with declining enrollment, decreasing revenue from the state and the amount appropriated from the county, we no longer receive enough funding to operate six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school at the level we have in the past.”

Due to increased costs in gasoline, utilities and materials, Cordon said BCPS was faced with two options n request additional funds or cut existing programs and personnel. He added that the latter scenario is already taking shape as the system, at the beginning of the current fiscal year, has eliminated a number of positions.

“We can no longer use the fund balance to remain afloat,” he noted. “Numerous cost cutting measures are now in effect. However, that process will generate a limited fund balance and can only be used short term.”

BCPS officials pointed to current reductions in state funds. As of Dec. 7, 2005, BCPS has noted a $583,775 decrease in DPI (Department of Public Instruction) funds. Over one-half ($286,980) of that loss is traced to a reduction of six teaching positions.

During the 2004-05 fiscal year, BCPS faced $266,290 in state reductions.

Recently, BCPS was forced to return $109,000 to the state due to declining ADM (Average Daily Membership) at the elementary school level. During a Jan. 9 meeting, Bertie School Board Chairman Seaton Fairless noted that 165 elementary school students have left the BCPS system over the past three years, continuing a trend that has seen a total loss of 348 students over the past nine years.

System wide, BCPS has witnessed a loss of 420 students from the 1999-2000 fiscal year to present. While that does translate into a loss of state ADM funds, it has not hurt what the Bertie County Commissioners designate annually to BCPS.

In 1999-2000, the Commissioners appropriated a shade over $1.7 million for the BCPS current expense fund. That worked out to an average of $469.90 per student (based on an ADM of 3,636 students at that time). The county’s appropriation has increased each year since, now standing at $2,057,000 based on an estimated student enrollment of 3,216 ($639.61 per student).

BCPS Superintendent Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart said at last week’s press conference that while the county’s appropriation has increased, those dollars do not buy the same services now as they did in years past.

“With escalating costs, maintaining existing staff and facing reductions in state funds, we barely have enough funds to remain afloat,” Dr. Collins-Hart said. “The amount appropriated by the county doesn’t give us much cushion.”

She referred to the current financial situation as “double jeopardy.”

“Declining enrollment and reductions in state funding led us to tap into the fund balance to offer the same services,” she said. “That is now catching up with us.”

Meanwhile, cost-cutting measures are apparently not restricted to personnel or services.

As part of its desegregation plan submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Bertie School Board suggested closing Askewville and J.P. Law elementary schools and reassigning those students to the four remaining K-5 schools in the system. With all operating costs combined, it costs BCPS $1.613 million to keep the doors open on those two schools, ones that house a total of 234 students.

Another option in its desegregation plan is to add Aulander Elementary to the closure list. Aulander, with a student population of 162, lists an annual operating cost of nearly $1.1 million.

When asked if the closings of two, possibly three, schools were necessary to comply with a federal court order in regards to the desegregation issue or were they solely a cost savings measure, Fairless answered in the affirmative to both inquiries.

“(The closings) can be used for both, cost-saving as well as satisfying the lawsuit so we can receive unitary status,” Fairless said.

Cordon said it was only fair to spread the cost savings evenly among the schools that remain open.

“We looked at all of our schools, trying to develop a plan that would best suit the needs of Bertie County, not just to satisfy the desegregation issue,” Cordon said. “We’re not closing schools just because the DOJ (Department of Justice) said so. We would rather look at the entire school system, look at the best way to provide the funds we have to educate all students fairly.”

BCPS officials are awaiting the outcome of their desegregation plan submitted to the DOJ. A federal judge is expected to make a decision on the plan no later than March 1.