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Ahead of schedule

WINDSOR – You might say they’re graduating a year early.

Bertie County Schools, which faced a deficit of $1.5 million just over a year ago, now has had over half of that – some 60 percent – cleared off the books; and what was to have been a five-year reduction plan, approved by the state Department of Public Instruction, should now be completely finished in roughly two years’ time.

Bertie County Schools Superintendent Dr. Catherine Edmonds, Chief Finance Officer Lisa Nowlin; along with Bertie Board of Education chairman Bobby Occena, vice-chair Jo Davis Johnson, members Tarsha Dudley, Emma Johnson, and newly-appointed member Norman Cherry, appeared before the Bertie County Commissioners at their monthly meeting May 7 to report the good news.

The district’s 2017 audit report showed Bertie County Schools had a $704,995 budget gap for fiscal year 2015-16 with a projected additional $828,379 gap for the 2016-17 fiscal year. This approximate $1.5 million projected deficit was compounded at the time by the district’s enrollment figures – reducing Bertie by 125 students and adding an additional $1.4 million cut to their 2017-18 budget.

But thanks to ‘belt-tightening’, the goal is now in reach.

Edmonds thanked the Commissioners for their support and after a brief video highlighting the past year’s superlatives in the district she briefly described the goals hoped for in the 2018-19 budget.

“There are some decisions made at the state level that will impact our local budget,” Edmonds said. “These include the class-size limits, the increase in enhancement teachers, as well as the increase in retirement and hospitalization; and these are just a few of the things that will impact our budget this year.”

While admitting there had not been growth at all the schools, she still touted points of advancement: four of the county’s seven schools exceeded growth while two schools met growth during the time of the deficit.

“We’re celebrating where we can,” she noted, “and where we know we have opportunities. We can’t do it all at once, but we can do it strategically.”

Nowlin then made the declaration of the 60 percent deficit reduction in just the first year of the five-year plan.

“Over 80 percent of our audit findings have also been corrected.” she stated. “In year-two, we are predicting that we will break even; considering it was a five-year plan we’re hoping to climb to higher heights and do even better.”

For 2018-19 the schools are requesting an increase of slightly more than $24,000 in local funding appropriation (from $3,003,000 in 2017-18 to $3,027, 670 for the upcoming year. This increase would go toward alternative-programs teachers, a full-time athletic trainer (partnering               with Vidant Bertie Hospital), matching grants for an additional School Resource Officer (SRO), and an early intervention initiative

Commissioner John Trent said with just two SROs for eight schools (including Askewville Pre-K), the SRO increase was vital.

“That person is going to be the first first-responder,” he emphasized. “And we do not want to have the critical mistakes made at Parkland (Florida school). We have a safety class for all the schools and when we had a shooter call a few weeks ago, our plans worked wonderfully and everyone followed protocol. Our SROs are the most important thing.”

Edmonds said she would like to see the SROs interact with the students on an educational level as well.

Early intervention she said would be working with three-to-four year olds before they actually enter into the school district.

Nowlin then explained that for the requested Capital Outlay appropriation, the $100,000 increase in the appropriation request (from $375,000 to $475,000) would be for infrastructure repair and improvements, new band uniforms, instructional technology, and safety and security.

Edmonds shared photos of critically needed roof repairs at Bertie Early College and at West Bertie Elementary.

Commissioner Tammy Lee suggested the district look at security options undertaken in other counties.

“Let’s not try to go out and re-invent the wheel,” Lee opined.

Edmonds said of the $100,000, $75,000 is earmarked for safety and security based on a three-to-five year plan is in the works; and that parents are encouraged to join and help provide input into the district’s safety and security team.

The superintendent also said she would like to see the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) initiative continued at the high school and the STEAM (where ‘Art’ is added) program in the elementary schools, particularly at Aulander Elementary.

Nowlin said despite the appropriations request the idea is not to get into another deficit situation; and the idea is aligning a budget that represents the needs of the children.

“I’m proud to say that even with our deficit, we were able to lessen the impact on our children, and they were still able to grow,” said Nowlin. “That process I hope will continue.”

The finance officer said the district is preparing in the 2018-19 school year to absorb students coming in from the possible closure of the Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy charter school, but since those numbers aren’t known, she reduced their local appropriation budget request by $100,000.

“Timing is everything,” she noted. “When we get those children back is when we’re going to decide whether we will get state funding for those additional positions, but for now we’re already scaling back and planning for the classroom size reduction, so we’re anticipating the additional funding. I want to be prepared so that if we have these dollars in our budget we can address that.”

Edmonds said the “Better Beginnings for Bertie’s Children” program, a stratagem that aids families by connecting parents as well as children to learning resources, is built into the budget request.

“If we can work with our parents before our children are actually entering into the schools, then that is a benefit for all of us.” Edmonds stated.

The superintendent closed the presentation by distributing the latest issue of ‘PITSCO Education’ magazine, which features an article praising the pilot study done at Bertie Middle School that focuses students on options and interests prior to their entering high school.

The Commissioners pledged to continue to work with the district to benefit the schools. The final budget for 2018-2019 will be adopted for the county by June 30.