Fund time: appreciating how different approaches converge

We’ve pulled three headlines out of Monday’s meeting of the Lenoir County Board of Commissioners:

County to fund LCPS at 2014-2015 level. That means the school system will get $9.9 million in operational funds from the county for the fiscal year that begins July 1, which doesn’t seem like such a big deal considering LCPS asked for $400,000 more, but considering that only days ago it looked like the school district might get some less, it’s news — and good news, at that.

The flap you may have noticed in your local newspaper, as well as on this blog, began with commissioners discussing in budget work sessions funding cuts of 2 to 4 percent. Naturally, that idea didn’t sit well with school district administrators. Admittedly, some elbows were thrown as the schools and county government registered their respective displeasure. Then, as often happens with public agencies and public boards that have been around the block a few times, they refocused on what was important and worked things out.

The school district, its administrators and elected board, and the county and county board of commissioners approach the same objective with different priorities. The school people put education first. The county people are primarily responsible for providing school facilities and, in meeting that requirement, want to be good stewards of public money. You can see the potential for conflict. On Monday, you saw the possibility of conflict resolution fulfilled.

As Jon Sargeant, chair of the Lenoir County Board of Education, said in remarks to the board of commissioners then: “I want to thank the commissioners for reconsidering their decision to reduce our school funding for next year. As you know, our school system is two years into a process to substantially improve our schools, and especially in light of the budget cuts we have received from the state over the last six years, every dollar we receive is critical toward reaching our goals.”

(Here’s a roundup of news coverage of the meeting:

LCPS to proceed with accelerated iPad project. Of the $400,000 in additional funding LCPS sought from the county for 2015-2016, $300,000 of that was to go to into its digital learning program, enabling the school system to bring the project into our high schools a year earlier than originally planned. We didn’t get that additional allocation, but will find the $300,000 for next year in our savings account or somewhere because it’s important that all our students and all our classrooms become part of the digital learning initiative as soon as possible.

In truth, the request was a bit of a long shot, but it was important to ask. It tells commissioners and county residents LCPS is seriously committed to digital learning and that the school system is going to need help with funding in future years, when the issue isn’t starting an important program but in sustaining it. LCPS repurposed $1 million in state and federal funds to begin the program in grades K-5 this school year and will again foot the bill for expansion into middle school and high school next school year, at a cost of $1.7 million. LCPS can’t go it alone forever, though, and commissioners know that.

That’s why they authorized a referendum in November on a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax; that additional revenue will help sustain our digital learning program as it matures into something really special. We’d be lying if we said leaving that important funding decision to voters is as good to us as getting a direct contribution from the county; but we have faith that voters will see the value of giving Lenoir County’s youth the kind of head start that technology and digital learning offer, that it’s an advantage worth another 2.5 cents on a $10 purchase. Certainly, LCPS will work hard with the county to get this new, and badly needed, revenue stream flowing.

School capacity issue an ongoing discussion
. For parents, a primary flashpoint in this dust-up between the school system and the county was the prospect of schools being closed. The funding cut to LCPS that was part of the county budget tentatively approved last week was tied to commissioners’ desire to see LCPS occupy less space. Since the state eliminated a maintenance allocation for schools based on enrollment, the cost of school maintenance was fallen to the county. Naturally, commissioners are more conscious of how school space is used, particularly the ratio of students enrolled to the stated enrollment capacity of specific schools.

Monday’s action by commissioners took the school capacity issue off high heat but left it on simmer. Over the next 12 months, the school board, in consultation with the board of commissioners, will look at data on enrollment and capacity, growth potential, maintenance costs and other factors influencing the best use of space.

Here again, the two boards approach the question with different priorities. “We have to make our decisions based on what’s best for the children,” Sargeant said at Monday night’s meeting of the school board. “Sometimes the most efficient way is not the best way for children. There’s a lot more that that goes into these decisions than just looking at a capacity number.”

But, as Sargeant made clear, the reality is this: LCPS has limited resources for maintenance since the state’s Public School Building Capital Fund, the money that went directly to schools based on enrollment, was killed in 2009. The lottery revenue designed to replace that maintenance money and a lot of the half-cent sales tax revenue earmarked for school maintenance goes to help the county pay down debt on a school construction bond issue approved about eight years ago. (In addition to providing about $320,000 a year for capital purchases like air-conditioning units and activity buses, the county pays $5 million to $6 million a year on that bond debt. Of that, the school system expects to contribute $1.3 million next fiscal year.) The combination of financial constraints and empty classrooms makes commissioners think some downsizing is in order.

We’ll see. We’ll see in the coming months how that utilitarian view squares with a more altruistic approach. We’ll see if it’s possible to build more diversity into city schools while creating more efficiencies. We’ll see how the public feels about any new ideas concerning the school system’s use of facilities. Nothing is decided except for this: The board of education will determine how facilities are used and those decisions will be made in public with the help of full public input.

This will not be an easy task, but even if hard decisions lay ahead, it’s good to be facing forward with a contentious budget debate behind us. LCPS thanks Lenoir County’s commissioners for providing the funds the county is able to provide and thanks the parents and community members who stepped up in support of the school system when support was needed. Now let’s all get back to work.