Loss of state and federal funding, coupled with diminishing fund balances, has prompted increased budget requests by Clinton City Schools and Sampson County Schools to the tune of $100 more per pupil for 2017-18.
County government officials have already met with county school officials and have plans to meet with city school leaders to come to a joint understanding on what they are facing and discuss long-term funding resolutions on what has been labeled a “critical” issue.
Last week, board chairman Clark Wooten and vice chairperson Sue Lee, along with County manager Ed Causey, Finance officer David Clack and Assistant county manager Susan Holder met with SCS Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy, finance officer Stephen Britt, SCS board chairman Telfair Simpson and board member Tim Register. That meeting occurred shortly before Monday’s regular commissioners meeting.
“It is a critical situation,” Wooten said.
Causey said the goal is for everyone to gain some insight on the challenges being faced.
“Although I would contend that our financial position is sound, we do not feel that we have significant available resources to expend without careful consideration of the future,” the county manager noted. “Everyone has agreed that this has to be a collective discussion to resolve this over several years, as opposed to a drastic action.”
He lauded county school officials with being “proactive and very in tune to their circumstances.”
Those circumstances include a significant loss of funding and a fund balance that has declined significantly since 2011. It is now set to drop some more. The fund balance for SCS as of June, 30, 2016 was $876,000. Another $472,000 is anticipated to be used in the 2017-18 budget.
A memo from Bracy, Britt and Simpson to Causey and commissioners outlined the dire situation.
In it, the school leaders said they were requesting $1,075 per student, a request that is a nearly 10 percent boost — $800,700 — from last year’s request. That would mean a total appropriation of nearly $9 million, compared to last year’s approved appropriation of nearly $8.2 million.
Similarly, Clinton City Schools Superintendent Dr. Stuart Blount said state and federal cuts will continue to impact his system’s budget for 2017-18, with an expected fund balance appropriation of $750,000, up $250,000 from last year. He also requested a per pupil county allocation increase of $100 to $1,075. Projected student enrollment for 2017-18 is 3,080, which would mean a total appropriation of roughly $3.3 million.
“This increase is a result of the current K-3 class size law scheduled to go into effect for 2017-18. This law would require us to employ seven to nine additional teachers in K-3. In addition, this increase would help the county maintain its effort relative to other counties in the state, and to secure Low Wealth funding for the public schools in Sampson County,” Blount stated.
The loss of Low Wealth funding has been particularly tough for SCS, county school leaders said in their budget request.
“The objective of this request is not to simply increase spending, but to maintain our ability to serve our students. The increase is needed due to a decrease in Low Wealth funding from the state.”
State Low Wealth funding helps ensure that students in poor counties have the same access to funding as students in wealthier counties. When a county tax revenue increases as a result of the increase in the wealth of that county, the state expects that the county’s funding of the school system will increase. The amount of Low Wealth dollars given to that county is then decreased.
That is the situation confronting Sampson County Schools.
Since 2011, the Low Wealth allotment for the county school system has declined nearly every year, and is down a total of $635,541.
“While the school system has received increases each year from the county, these increases have not kept pace with the cuts in Low Wealth,” the memo read. “The school system has fewer dollars to serve students than six years ago.”
Bracy said numerous steps have been taken to offset the loss of funding, including increasing class size, eliminating and consolidating positions and delaying projects and salary increases.
Sampson County Schools’ per pupil expenditure currently ranks 108th out of 115 local education agencies in the state, county schools officials said.
“Even with these efforts, we find ourselves on an unsustainable path,” the budget request read. “This fiscal year, the school system has budgeted roughly half of our available fund balance of $876,000. Our current funding level does not put enough revenue into the school system to meet the needs of SCS students.”
Causey said revenue projections were not complete for the county’s own budget, but noted it was “unlikely” the county would come close to meeting SCS’s operating budget request.
“Based on our preliminary review, it is unlikely that we can meet the current requests within the parameters that we are working,” Causey stated. “Yet, we hope this meeting is the beginning of a continuing dialogue that helps us achieve and establish long term realistic goals on both sides.”
“The state average for county funding per child is a little over $1,700 per child. Sampson County about is at about $975 per child. Realistically, I do not believe that we will ever get to the state average,” he noted
Causey said county officials have plans for similar discussions with Clinton City Schools officials, including Blount and others.
“We do not intend to leave Clinton City Schools out of any kind of productive discussions about funding for the future,” Causey stated
Commissioner Albert Kirby also suggested that other commissioners be a part of the talks.
“It sounds critical enough that all the commissioners need to be involved,” Kirby said. “It sounds like something very serious. It sounds like the state of North Carolina is going to force Sampson County to either raise its taxes or cut people — it’s punitive to us. This is critical.”
“What do you do when you have to cough up $800,000?” said Kirby, alluding to SCS’s increased request. “It blows a hole in all of your plans.”
Causey said those concerns were “on target” and “very valid.” It was crucial that everyone gain understanding and work together.
“We’re not talking about doing anything outlandish,” Causey said. “From a planning standpoint, we’re going to work very diligently to work within the resources we’ve got to accomplish this. I’m optimistic there is a solution. I’m not necessarily optimistic it’s not going to cost us some money.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.