PER PUPIL FUNDING (CHILD NUTRITION EXCLUDED) 2019 (from NC DPI)
Lincoln County Schools...
total funding per student $8043.64 (115th)
federal funding per student $393.40 (110th)
state funding per student $6107.46 (107th)
local funding per student $1503.81 (99th)
State of North Carolina averages...
total funding per student $9376.96
federal funding per student $584.22
state funding per student $6470.85
local funding per student $2321.89
Wayne Howard Staff Writer
Lincoln County Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget for fiscal 2020-2021 at their meeting Monday evening (June 1st). If it's like it has been in most years, there won't be many who will take time to attend the meeting, and likely even fewer who will speak during the public hearing. That's a shame.
Commissioners have tentatively approved (talked about, but no official vote taken) a budget that will recognize the likelihood that the money coming in from taxes, especially the sales tax, will probably be less than in recent years. County employees won't get a pay raise until January 2021 and they'll have to pay more for their health care insurance. Some of the departmental and agency requests presented to County Manager Kelly Atkins were also trimmed. What bothers us is the proposed budget cuts school funding by 5%.
Lincoln County Schools had presented a budget request for an increase of four million dollars--plus $800,000 to be used for updating and/or replacing HVAC units and information technology. They are getting neither in the budget if it is approved as it now stands.
Instead, County Commissioners decided to give an increase in the local supplement to certified classroom teachers only. Administrators, media coordinators (librarians), etc. won't be included.
Back in October of last year, Atkins and Program Operations Manager Joshua Grant put together a session involving both the School Board (officially, the Board of Education) and Commissioners. Dr. Rhonda Hager, Assistant Superintendent with the schools, and John Davis, County Parks & Recreation Director, led the two-hour session that included exercises and games designed to encourage team efforts. The idea was to promote the idea, 'we're all on the same team.'
It was an effort to smooth relationships between the two boards. A couple of years ago, the Commissioners changed a policy that had required the schools, if they used money for a different (although similar) purpose than what had been in their original budget presentation, to get a further OK from Commissioners for any reallocation of more than 10%. Previously, such approval was only when the change was greater than 25%.
Then last year, the Commissioners adopted a policy that if the schools spent money for something that wasn't in their original budget--even though the money for that kind of item had been approved--they had to give copies of the bills to Commissioners before they could be paid. Such items would include things like getting a damaged building repaired after a storm.
More and more it appears the Commissioners don't trust the judgment of the School Board and administration of the schools. One of the Commissioners usually attends the School Board committee meetings and the regular board meetings.
That, of course, is a matter for discussion at a later time. For now, the discussion--and hopefully the public comments come Monday night--will have to do with funding the schools.
Some might argue that the number of students attending Lincoln County Schools has declined. It had declined for a few years, but now appears to be holding fairly steady. Home schooling and charter schools have taken a sizable number of students. It's worth noting that not only did Dr. Lory Morrow, Superintendent of Lincoln County Schools, use the public comments portion of the budget discussion meeting earlier this month to ask Commissioners to consider increasing the funding; Jonathan Bryant, Chief Administrator with Lincoln Charter School, also spoke at that meeting and also urged Commissioners to reconsider cutting school funding. By law, a portion of the County funding for Lincoln County Schools goes to Lincoln Charter School, so any cut also affects them.
The proposed reduction in funding speaks volumes about what Commissioners consider important. How important is education? Jim Watson is a former superintendent of Lincoln County Schools; he also served until earlier this year at the chair of the Board of Trustees of Gaston College; and he is a former chair of the Lincoln Economic Development Association. Jim told us: I was very disappointed to hear of the proposed budget cut to the school system. Investing in education is a commitment to our children and the quality of life in our county. Recently I served six years on the Lincoln Economic Development Association Board of Directors, two of which I served as Chair. During that time I came to the full realization that economic development and commitment to quality education went hand in hand. We should be reminded when Lowe’s Home Improvement Center made the decision to move their corporate headquarters out of Wilkes County to Mooresville; a significant factor was due to Wilkes County not adequately supporting the public schools. I hope we can create a climate in our county where education is highly supported and the result is a great place to live, work and raise a family. A strong, adequately funded school system is a key ingredient in making this happen.
Schools in neighboring counties, while their final budgets aren't yet finalized, are all getting an increase in their budgets based on preliminary reports from those counties. Only Lincoln is looking at a proposed budget cut in school funding.
Lincoln County Schools deserve much praise for the way they have handled the COVID-19 pandemic. When Governor Cooper ordered schools closed for health reasons, there was the possibility that children who depend on their school lunches would go hungry. The schools responded by immediately making arrangements to help that situation. While classrooms were empty, education continued--through remote learning using the internet and other means. Teachers found innovative ways to keep educating the kids. The schools faced a crisis like we had never seen and they came through it better than could have been imagined.
But then, Lincoln County Schools have always done more with less. The system ranks 11th out of 115 school systems in the state in terms of graduation and other outcomes; yet they rank the very lowest in total per pupil funding from federal, state and local funds. They rank 99th in local per pupil funding. By comparison, Gaston County Schools are 75th, Catawba County 76th, Cleveland County 72nd, Hickory City Schools 77th, Newton-Conover Schools 60th, Mooresville City Schools 17th, Iredell County 71st.
Lincoln County has an unencumbered Fund Balance of some $26 million. Plans are--based on the estimates in the proposed budget--to use about $2 million of that to balance the budget without increasing taxes despite expecting less funds coming in. The Local Govt. Commission says counties should maintain a minimum Fund Balance of 8% of their total budget. Lincoln County Commissioners, who used to have a policy to maintain a 15% Fund Balance, now have a policy to maintain 20%. The money is there to give the schools at least what they had for 2019-2020.
We may owe the taxpayers an apology. We urged you to approve the optional quarter-cent additional sales tax with the understanding it would be used for schools. Years ago, the state approved having a lottery--with the money earmarked for education. Unfortunately, the General Assembly decided since the schools were getting the lottery money (although not as much as they did at first) they (the legislature) didn't have to spend as much on schools. We certainly hope that isn't going to happen with the quarter-cent extra sales tax in Lincoln County. We had hoped (and told you) it would be EXTRA money for schools, money that would pay for classroom supplies, security and technology. We certainly didn't want to see other school funding cut.
If you care about the schools, if you agree that education should be our #1 priority, then you ought to attend the meeting Monday night and speak up. Frankly, it amuses us (and saddens us) that dozens of people show up at public hearings about rezoning a piece of property for a solar farm or a concrete plant or a proposed store location; yet almost nobody shows up to talk about the County Budget.