Discussion turns lively over school funding

Published 2:43 pm Thursday, May 14, 2009

JACKSON — Facing a budget shortfall, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners have asked the Board of Education to work with them, but the response hasn’t been so welcoming.

On Tuesday, the two governing entities met for a working group meeting to discuss the schools’ capital outlay appropriation and the recent decision to reorganize the school system.

Most of the officials’ discussions centered on the county appropriation to the schools, in which school representatives feel is waning.

Commission Chair Carter informed school officials that during the commissioners’ May 8 budget work session they had learned county expenditures had exceeded revenue, therefore the county was facing a projected $2.1 million shortfall.

“Ladies and gentlemen, in order for us to balance the budget, this equates to a 12 and a half percent tax increase,” he said.

Carter said the 12 and one-half percent increase would increase the tax rate from the current 78 cents to 91 cents.

He continued by saying the board directed the county manager to work with the county department heads in order to reduce their operating budgets and cut out unnecessary travel, conferences and training expenses.

Carter noted the recent sale of the old Gaston Middle School property and the increase in funds the school system gained in the amount of $75,000. He then asked board members to help in the budgeting process.

Board of Education member Charles Tyner questioned Finance Officer Dot Vick about the tax collection rate in the county.

Vick told Tyner last year’s collection rate was 96 percent and this year was 95 percent. She continued by saying she budgets conservatively and typically taxes come in $200,000 above what is budgeted.

“That’s not going to happen this year,” she said.

County Manager Wayne Jenkins said in the upcoming budget, an increase of $404,000 in expenditures has been projected in part to a 17 percent increase to health insurance costs. The county is also facing a decrease of $1.7 million in revenue. Jenkins said departments were directed to cut their budgets by three percent.

“What is it that you’re asking the Board of Education to do,” Tyner asked.

Carter referred to the $45,000 appropriation that was withheld from the school system last year and has since been reinstated.

Jenkins then noted a request from the Board of Education last year asking for an additional $45,000 for 2010. In all $90,000 is to be transferred from capital outlay to current expense.

Jenkins spoke of the $75,000 the school system will gain from the sale of the old Gaston Middle School property and recommended the school board reduce their capital outlay budget from $490,000 to $415,000. He added the school board could make up the difference with the $75,000 profited from the Gaston Middle sale.

“You would still get the $490,000, but in a round about way,” Carter explained.

Jenkins added that calculation only fulfilled the appropriations and not the $90,000 requested to be transferred. In the end, the schools’ capital outlay would stand at $325,000, with an increase of current expense appropriation to $3,645,000 for next year.

Tyner noted the state’s schools funding cuts through enrollment (ADM) funding and lottery funds.

“If we do not get back the lottery and ADM money, I just don’t see how we can keep these seven schools,” he noted. “That’s the reason why you’re doing it because we sold the building.”

Carter fired back, stating the county was taking measures to reduce expenditures. He referred to an article printed in the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald’s May 12 edition, noting the school board had earmarked $380,306 for supplementary pay for certified personnel.

“You’re building up your personnel while we’re taking ours down,” he said. “We’re biting the bullet here and we’re asking you to do the same.”

“We’re not in the same business,” said Tyner. “We’re in the business of educating our children.

Tyner said the business of the school system was attracting certified personnel to teach in Northampton County. He also noted the lack of certified teachers in the area.

“If you want a less quality education you might be right,” Tyner said.

Board of Education Chair Grace Edwards tried to calm the waters, stating the commissioners might be able to help them and “we want to work together.”

Northampton County Schools Finance Director Joe Holloway and Jenkins discussed a 37.3 percent budget formula.

“Please understand that budget formula is off the table,” said Jenkins.

After a few moments of discussion, Jenkins referred to past working group meeting minutes in which it was stated the group would have to work on a new formula.

“That’s my heartburn with this is that we don’t have one,” said Holloway.

The group agreed to meet and create a new formula.

“We’re listening to you today, but we need to take this back to our board,” said Tyner.

The group also spoke about phase one of the reorganization plan for the school system, which will close Rich Square WS Creecy Elementary, Garysburg Elementary and the Alternative School.

School officials said they were looking to pay off the bond for Northampton County High School-West and Conway Middle School.

“We want to look at this because we’re looking down the road at a new high school,” said Tyner.

Vick said she would check into paying off bonds.

Jenkins explained with the $93 million in stimulus money requests by Northampton, a couple projects related to the schools, including a new high school.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy asked county officials to place the new high school as a priority, as the school system is duplicating services in two separate high schools.

“We’re not big enough for an east or a west,” he said.