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Ouch!

JACKSON – The proposed 2018-19 budget for Northampton County includes healthy increases for General Government operations and Public Safety, each in the neighborhood of a $750,000 hike.

It also proposes to spend nearly $3.5 million for a foursome of capital improvement projects across the county.

What the suggested financial spreadsheet doesn’t increase is funding for the county’s public school system. The proposed budget, as drafted by Northampton Manager Kim Turner, reduces the school system’s local appropriation by a half-million dollars over current year funding.

That proposal was met with opposition here Thursday afternoon by several ranking members of Northampton Schools, including Superintendent Dr. Monica Smith-Woofter, when the county’s Board of Commissioners conducted a scheduled public hearing on the budget.

The Superintendent spent her first few moments of addressing the commissioners by sharing a few thoughts from the past.

“We know where we are educationally here in Northampton County. We don’t make any excuses, we accept our reality, and we know there is room for growth in all of us,” she began.

“Each one of you (commissioners) in my past four years here, at least in my presence, have voiced your concerns about Northampton Schools being low performing,” Dr. Smith-Woofter continued. “You’ve shouted it loud and you’ve asked us what we intended to do. You’ve asked, as recently as 2017, what are we doing to retain our teachers. I ask you, are you willing to assist us to better compensate our teachers? If so, that shows in your actions and not in lip service, but yet here we are with a half-million-dollar cut.”

She stressed a need for more, not less funding, particularly due to the fact that Northampton is a Tier 1 county where poverty levels are high, which are often linked to low performing schools.

“If we intend to remove the barriers and challenges that students in poverty face that often impedes their learning, we need adequate funding. Funding resources can balance the scales of equity,” Dr. Smith-Woofter remarked.

“So I ask you, are you really intending to cut the local funding to our schools? Cutting us by a half-million-dollars, in my eyes, shows that you are not committed to investing in the future of Northampton County schoolchildren. In our eyes, that’s a problem. Your actions speak volumes. I ask you to please reconsider your budget cuts,” she concluded.

Dr. Smith-Woofter wasn’t the only Northampton Schools official critical of the $500,000 budget cut.

“Our (school) district’s needs continue to be much greater than the amount of funding we are to receive,” said Clinton Williams, Chairman of the Northampton Board of Education. “We’re simply asking ya’ll (commissioners) to consider going back in and look at your budget to see if you can assist us with meeting our needs. We need extra funds to appropriately operate our schools for the 2018-19 school year.”

Northampton Schools Finance Officer Cathy Gillus said the funds received from the county help supplement the reduction of the state/federal revenue stream.

“Since the 2014-15 school year we have experienced cuts in excess of $1.5 million in state and federal dollars,” Gillus noted.

“We’re here to provide a quality education for our children, provide necessary compensation for our staff, and also maintain our facilities through the use of local funds,” she continued. “Each year we are asked to do more with less. Please remember that every cut to education will guarantee a significant reduction in this community’s ability to sustain its future.”

Assistant Superintendent Doug Miller said the proposed $500,000 cut will, “devastate the things we need to do to keep good teachers.”

Miller explained that $80,000 of requested funds from the county to use as longevity bonuses for teachers would have to be cut if the proposed new budget is approved.

“There is research that shows when you put a good teacher in front of students, then student achievement improves dramatically,” Miller stressed. “One of the ways we use to retain quality teachers is offering a three percent (salary) supplement (which comes from local funds). We will now have to look at cutting that supplement.”

Miller added that the half-million-dollar shortfall may even lead to the worst case scenario – a reduction in force.

“Local dollars do not have strings attached; local dollars are how we make our budget work,” he continued. “Local dollars help us move our other money around. We use local money to improve our teacher retention rate, which is 29.2 percent this year and has been as high as 35 percent in 2012-13.”

Addressing the school system’s proposed capital outlay budget (projected at $595,000), Albert Bennett said his department was looking at ways to cut energy costs at the schools.

“It will help, especially at our older buildings such as Willis Hare (Elementary School),” said Bennett, who serves as the school system’s Maintenance Director. “We’re also trying to use controls over the air conditioning and heating, so we can set it (thermostats) and it can’t be changed.”

Turner’s budget proposal, which was presented at Thursday’s public hearing by Assistant County Manager Nathan Pearce, totals $32.97 million in the General Fund. That figure is $236,557 higher than the current level of spending, but does not require a property tax increase, which remains at 92 cents (per $100 of value).

To balance the bottom line, the new budget proposes to appropriate $1,995,714 from the undesignated fund balance.

It reflects an increase of $735,105 (an 18 percent hike) in General Government, and an eight percent boost ($737,151) in Public Safety. Pearce noted that six new positions of employment are proposed in Public Safety – two Deputy Sheriffs and four EMT-Paramedics.

As for the $3.4 million in capital projects, those funds are earmarked for renovations to the courthouse and the old DSS building; extending wastewater infrastructure from the town of Seaboard to the West Fraser plant; and the Severn Peanut Building Re-Use project.

The proposed budget includes a five-percent cost-of-living adjustment for county employees. There is a 15.6 percent increase in health insurance premiums.

Other than the $3.645 million for schools ($3 million in current expense; $595,000 in capital outlay; and $50,000 from fines and forfeitures), the remaining lion’s share of the departmental appropriations are for the Health Dept. ($4.0 million), Emergency Services / Ambulance ($3.3 million), Sheriff’s Office ($2.66 million), DSS ($2.17 million), Jail ($1.5 million), and Emergency Communications ($1.06 million).

The main source of revenue to build the budget comes from property taxes ($18.44 million), state sales tax ($2.35 million), sales/services ($1.7 million), and Health Dept. services ($1.02 million).

The Board of Commissioners have scheduled a special called meeting at 5 p.m. on Monday, June 18 to conduct a budget work session. That will be followed by their regularly scheduled meeting at 6 p.m. at which time they may adopt the proposed budget or ask for any changes.

The 2018-19 budget is required to be in place by July 1.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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