Officials from Sampson County Schools are preparing its finances for the 2017-18 budget and a challenge to keep their heads above water.
Finance Director Stephen Britt reported the district anticipates that it will cut nine positions, due to a loss of about $450,000 from state funds. Some of those positions include one teaching position, one instructional support spot and others who provide assistance with at-risk students or helping students learn a new language.
Reports shows that the district is losing $10,231 in Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Funding, which is designed to improve the education of at-risk students. Sampson Schools is planning to be without $70,000 for its Limited English Proficiency (LEP) program, which helps students understand the language. The largest cut, $165,000 is for at-risk students. Funds are used to help students failing in academics.
Low Wealth funding has been cut by $108,000. Britt expressed that this pot of money is a bigger issue than people think. The amount is distributed when a county’s ability to produce local income for public education is below the state’s average. Although school officials appreciate approved increased funding from the Sampson County Board of Commissioners, the amount has not kept up with cuts in low wealth funding.
“The wealth of Sampson County is increasing relative to the rest of the state,” Britt said.
A benchmark is used for all counties in North Carolina to determine amounts. During the previous school year, Sampson County received a total of $4.76 million. For the 2016-17 school year the amount was $4.37 million
“(The more) under average you are, equals more dollars that you get from the state to make up that difference,” Britt said. “The goal from the state is that, it does not matter if you’re in Sampson County, Cumberland County, Wake County or whatever, you have the same opportunity as student no matter what.”
On a positive note, Britt said Sampson County is increasing its revenue, but that means less low wealth funding from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. To make up for the decrease, the district is seeking $800,000 more from the county. The total requested amount is more than $8 million.
“The county is doing their due diligence and they’ve been increasing our funding every year,” Britt said. “From their side, they’re probably seeing that as taking the steps to help maintain the school system and they are. What is surprising though is that the state is cutting us by a greater amount than the increases we’re getting from the county.”
Britt said this puts county officials in a tight position because they have to divide money with other county departments and organizations, which provides services to residents.
“It puts the burden on them to help get us out of the hole,” Britt said.
For Sampson County Schools, it’s the biggest challenge right now.
‘We’re not looking to expand or increase positions,” Britt said. “We’re asking for increased funding, but it’s just to tread water and stay afloat.”
He added that position cuts may be determined by how much funding is received by Sampson County officials. At this point, he stressed that the goal is to stay steady.
“We spoke with all of our principals and they’re on the same page,” he said. “We just want to maintain. We do not want to increase class sizes and we understand that’s there’s no extra money to increase funding and add position. Their number one priority is to maintain.”
Another challenge is lawmakers encouraging the reduction the size of kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. Britt believes it’s a good measure, but it may come with issues because of funding and flexibility for other art or physical education related programs. With Sampson County Schools, Britt said the district does not have a fund balance with millions of dollars to cover educators.
“That’s a major concern because one of two things are going to have to happen,” he said. “You’re going to lose your music and art programs, so you can afford your core classes. Or you have to increase your spending to find another way to pay for those teachers for those programs.”
As school officials wait to receive funding from county officials, the district is also keeping an eye on state and federal decisions. For school operations during the 2016-17 school year, the district used $78 million from state, federal, county and grant funds.
“Our biggest funding source is the state and that’s still up in the air,” Britt said. “We’re in a wait and see mode.”
The district is spending roughly $400,000 in fund balance, which is about half of money in that account.
“We can’t operate at the same level next year,” he said. “There’s no way to fund that, especially with the cuts that are coming through the pipeline.”
Sampson Schools is is expecting an annual daily attendance of 8,358 students for the 2017-18 school year. That amount is 15 more than current enrollment.
“We know we’re not in an environment where we can add services and teachers to reduce classroom sizes,” he said. “But we would like to maintain what we have. Our teachers and educators have done a tremendous job of putting Sampson County Schools as one of the top districts in the region. Our test scores are the envy of a lot of our neighbors and we want to be able to maintain that.”
For many educators, that can’t be accomplished with bigger classes and less support.
“You can’t do less for the students and expect them to have the same outcome,” Britt said.
Financial audit issues
After arriving in January, Britt discovered that the district overpaid the Employment Security Commission $453,000. That amount is used as unemployment insurance for employees using pass-through state funds. During a budget session in February for the Sampson County Board of Commissioners, Chairman Clark Wooten expressed his concern about the matter.
“The state essentially gives you a blank checkbook every year,” Britt said about covering unemployment insurance. “Who we’re paying is another state agency.”
Britt said he does not want to downplay the issue, but the matter involved transferring funds from one state agency to another. It does not affect overall school funding.
“It’s important to us because we want to have it in the right account. We want to give it back to DPI. But at the same time, I can’t use those funds to do anything else. I can’t use the funds to pay teacher, but supplies. It’s restricted funds.”
Britt said they’re working with legislators to resolve the issue, instead of waiting 17 years for reimbursements to fix the matter.
“It’s taxpayer money used to fund another taxpayer entity,” he said. “It’s from one state treasurers account to another.”
An audit prepared by Carr, Riggs, and Ingram, LLC., found five deficiencies in the internal control system of the district. The first was dividing responsibilities when it comes to financial controls. Britt said it’s essential to separate duties. One example was how one person is not allowed to key a vendor in the system and pay them too.
“Part of that comes down to having enough people in finance who are trained for different duties,” Britt said. “I’ve already been working with our auditors to get an internal control process in place, where each one of us have things that we’re allowed to do and what we’re not allowed to do.”
It puts a safeguard in place so school officials will not make the same mistakes similar to the over payment of unemployment insurance.
“If we had a control in place for that, it would have been caught,” Britt said.
Other deficiencies was the board spending more money than appropriated in the budget; accounting functions not being prepared on time; inaccuracy of cash balances held in financial institutions; and overspending state allotted funds for positions.
“Those are things that we addressed over the last three month,” Britt said. “I can’t guarantee that there will not be any audit findings next year, but there will not be five.”