An unkind cut: considering commissioners’ arm-twisting budget

When LCPS submitted a 2015-2016 budget request to Lenoir County commissioners last month that included an additional $300,000 to help fund our digital learning initiative, our expectations were realistic. It was a solid request for an excellent project, but county funding for public schools has been flat for years. When commissioners got around to discussing the school system’s budget in work sessions, even our realistic expectations turned out to be too optimistic.

On Thursday, commissioners on a 4-2 vote gave preliminary approval to a 2015-2016 budget proposal that denies the $300,000 and instead cuts the county’s local contribution to our schools by $197,000, about 2 percent less than the school system got this fiscal year. As part of the proposal, commissioners also authorized a referendum on a quarter-cent sales tax increase, effectively shifting from commissioners to voters the responsibility for adequately funding public schools.

To put it mildly, there is a distinct difference of opinion between Lenoir County and Lenoir County Public Schools on funding, use of facilities and what matters in education. Because so many issues are wrapped up in this disagreement, we’ll try to sort them out in the simplest way possible, by answering questions we’ve heard or anticipate hearing, in hopes that this information will figure into a countywide conversation about school funding before a public hearing is held on the budget proposal Monday morning.

How does the quarter-cent sales tax figure into the school district’s request for $300,000 a year in funding? The short answer: not at all this year, when we need it. The point of securing the additional $300,000 is to put iPads, the primary tool of our digital learning initiative, in the hands of all 2,800 of LCPS’s high school students next fall. Even though county commissioners decided Thursday to call a referendum on the sales tax increase, it will not go to voters before November. If voters approve it and commissioners decide to levy it, collection of revenue from that quarter-cent could not begin before April 1 due to procedures required by the state.

Can’t the school district find that money on its own? How about reducing the payroll in the central office. Any time a large public institution like the public schools or local governments look for help in funding a costly project, someone will squawk about a top-heavy administration or a bloated budget. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. While those criticisms may be on target with some public entities, they are wide of the mark with LCPS.

Try to put your prejudices aside and pay attention to the data. The district’s Central Office expenses typically account for about 5 percent of LCPS’s total annual budget. (For 2015-2016, it’s $4.26 million of $83.3 million.) How many businesses with 18 locations and 1,600 full- and part-time employees can say the same? Of the $51.5 million in state funds that came into LCPS in 2013-2014, all administrative costs — Central Office administration plus school building administration — totaled $2.8 million, or 5 percent. If you feel like wading through 18 pages of the school district’s request for the $10.3 million allocation from the county (plus the revenue from fines, fees and forfeitures that comes to school districts under state law), you’ll find expenses that cover a lot of ground, from schools’ utility costs to gas for buses, but not a lot of money for people.

As for using our own money, LCPS is. A digital learning program for all 9,200 of our students in grades K-12 — one of a handful of its kind in the state — will cost $1.7 million a year to provide. The school system will provide $1.4 million. We asked the county to chip in 18 percent of the annual costs on a program that would not only show LCPS as forward-looking but would also append that compliment to the county itself. Instead, commissioners are more interested in seeing the school district dip into its savings account, if necessary, to pay the entire cost. The savings account, or fund balance, is money set aside to cover emergencies and plug short-term funding gaps. It’s not intended to pay for recurring expenses. That’s the primary role of an allocation from county government.

Why is the school district asking anyone for extra money? Isn’t that why North Carolina has the lottery? The only revenue from the N.C. Education Lottery that actually comes into Lenoir County is earmarked for school construction. Last year, that amounted to $600,000 and it went directly to the county government to help pay the debt on a $70 million school construction bond approved in 2007. As for the other $2.2 million lottery officials say benefited the county last year, it was all folded into existing state expenses, such as teacher salaries and Pre-K programs. Lottery revenue hasn’t increased state spending on education, just allowed the state to shift spending elsewhere.

What’s the rush to get iPads into the high schools? Wasn’t that originally scheduled to happen in the 2016-2017 school year? Opportunities have presented themselves that make this accelerated schedule workable. We’ve been able to negotiate much better pricing with Apple, which was very impressed with our rollout of iPads to 4,300 K-5 students last fall. LCPS also benefited from Rochelle Middle School’s winning an Apple ConnectEd grant, which will provide students and teachers there with a full array of Apple devices without costing the school district a cent. These factors played the biggest role in cutting the annual cost of the program almost in half, from the $3 million estimated last year to $1.7 million. If we can get iPads and a program of digital learning in the high schools next year, what’s the point in waiting? We expect high school students to put the devices to good use immediately. They are naturally curious, their curriculum is heavy on research, they are adept on the devices and they’re that much closer to entering the wider world of college, work or the military, where digital technology reigns.

Since the county isn’t exactly flush with money, how reasonable is it to ask the board of commissioners for more? Naturally, we feel commissioners should make public education a funding priority. That hasn’t been the case in the past. The annual local allocation is $800 less per pupil than the state average — in a state considered among the worst in the nation in per-pupil spending. With the cut commissioners approved Thursday, that per-pupil allocation will fall even further. We’ve been considerate of the county’s financial position for many years, asking for the bare minimum needed for instruction and requesting maintenance funds far below the district’s actual needs. With this request for additional funds, we asked the board of commissioners to make the county a partner in our school improvement effort and show its support for the centerpiece of that effort, the district’s digital learning initiative.

What’s been the reaction of commissioners to that request? At Thursday’s session, Commissioner Mac Daughety, who voted against the budget proposal with Commissioner Eric Rouse, asked that school officials present be allowed to speak. That request was denied, so whatever information the commissioners acted on was not the result of conversations with school board members or people who actually operate the school system. By the same token, what commissioners hope to gain from giving LCPS less money can only be divined. Based on remarks by the chair of the county board in the recent past and his expectation that the cut will “spur (LCPS) to action,”  it appears commissioners want to use the funding cut to coerce the board of education into closing schools and moving students. Whatever the reason, the net result is that, when LCPS is in the midst of a school improvement program that shows great promise, county commissioners plan to do less for our schools and our students.

If the county were in a financial crisis, if commissioners truly could not afford to spend more money on education because the county didn’t have it or needed desperately to spend it elsewhere, their action might be easier to understand. But that must not be the case. At the same time the county is reducing its financial support of public schools, it is lowering the property tax rate by a half-cent, taking money that would benefit Lenoir County’s youth and giving it away to property owners.

Why would they want to close schools? Commissioners who gave preliminary approval to the budget apparently agree with their board chair’s view that the school system operates inefficiently, that it has empty classrooms and presumably spends too much money maintaining schools. That view is based not on any substantive give-and-take between commissioners, the school board and district administrators but in large part on a walking tour commissioners took of schools over a two-week period a while back, what you might call a windshield survey. School capacity is one of those half-empty, half-full situations — what you see depends on your point of view. For educators, a school that isn’t crowded means flexibility, room for growth and less friction between students; a school that is crowded — say, one created by combining two high schools with a resulting enrollment of 1,700 students — means the opposite. As for maintenance, the school district has, over the last four years, averaged spending $1 million annually to keep all its properties, including 17 schools, in working order, which doesn’t seem like much of a burden, especially since revenue from a half-cent portion of the sales tax that comes to the county is earmarked for exactly such expenses as school maintenance.

The larger question within this issue is, who’s running the school system, the board of commissioners or the board of education. The best use of school facilities is a matter for the elected school board to deliberate. Considering the impact changes of that nature have on students and families, they should be approached with an open mind and with an ear attuned to public comment. Such change makes sense if it improves opportunities for students; it makes no sense when wielded as a weapon by elected officials intent on getting their way.