Members of the Stokes County School Board asked the county Board of Commissioners to consider providing more funding for both the current expense and capital outlay budgets for schools during a joint meeting of the two boards last week.
School Board Chair Sonya Cox said the school system had prepared a budget that had a very small increase in spending over last year and highlighted that the system has reduced it workforce by not filling vacant positions over the past couple of years.
“We are being good stewards of what you are giving us,” she said. “We implore you to do the best job you can for us.”
She noted that school employees typically get a four percent supplement over state funding to try to keep the system competitive when looking for employees, but that that supplement was not providing a full four percent after the state raised teachers salaries last year.
“We were not able to unfreeze the four percent supplement last year, we would like to do that this year,” she said.
Superintendent Ronnie Mendenhall said that the proposed county budget provided $953,058 less than the school board had asked for, noting that in past years the school system had been able to make up that difference by drawing from its fund balance.
“Now we do not have the ability to pull over a million dollars from the fund balance to balance what we need,” he said. He said that although the county’s student population, called ADM, was decreasing, that did not necessarily translate to an ability to reduce costs. “State allotments for our core courses are based off of the ADM of the entire school district, not by each individual school. A decline in the ADM does not mean that the school can decrease the number of employees. We are trying to avoid combination classes as much as possible, but for the 15-16 school year we are projecting that we will have between 10 and 15 combination classes.”
He said the system was also trying to avoid having large class sizes, but noted that since the 2012-13 budget locally funded teaching positions had decreased from 24.4 to 11.9.
School Board Member Becky Boles said the school system was dealing with a number of unfunded mandates from the state and recognized that the county was dealing with its own financial issues.
“We have to be bale to have money to look at salaries to be able to get the qualified people we need to to be able to teach our children,” she said. “It is not just the head count of teachers, it is in the teachers being qualified to do the best they can.”
School Board Member Bill Hart said that improving the schools could help the county improve its economic development initiatives, and School Board Member Pat Messick said that the system had lost between 45 and 50 employees over the past two to four years due to budgetary issues.
“Now we are looking at losing another 11 teachers,” she said. “We cannot retain our personnel if we don’t have some local dollars to offset what the state has cut also.”
Cox added that the Stokes County school system tried to not have too many administrative positions and focused instead on funding classroom positions.
Members of the Board of Commissioners expressed sympathy for the school system’s plight, but said their own budgetary issues made it hard to provide any additional funding for the schools.
“This year, even if we follow the county manager’s recommendation, we will be taking another million out of our fund balance,” said Commissioner Leon Inman. “We face the situation where if we continue doing that then there will be no fund balance.”
Commissioner James Booth said there may be improvements in the county budget in several years, but that it would be very tight for at least the next two years.
Commissioner Jimmy Walker discussed the county’s own problem with turnover and noted that several citizens were starting to push back against the idea of a tax increase in next year’s budget.
“They are not happy,” he said. “I appreciate the situation the schools are in, it is is a tough year for you folks. But it is probably one of the toughest years our county has faced.”
Mendenhall asked the commissioners to at least try to find level funding for capital projects for the school system, noting that several projects had to be fixed.
“We received $798,000 in capital last year,” he said. “This year we are asking for $1,462,500 and I am telling you there is no fat in that at all.”
He said the school’s request had been cut in half from what was initially planned for in the five-year capital projects plan.
“We were asking for 63 projects in priority order and we cut that down to 28,” said Mendenhall. “These are things that have to happen. These are all safety needs or mandates.”
He added that the roof at Chestnut Grove Middle School remained a top priority, but that the cost to repair it was increasing every year that project got postponed.
“We were estimating it would cost $900,000 four years ago,” said Mendenhall. “The most recent estimate is $1,164,000. I know the money is tight and it is hard times, but we are just asking if there is anyway possible for some extra help in capital.”
Cox added that the sate recommends schools spend $2 to $3 dollars per square foot for building maintenance each year.
“If we spent $2.50 per square foot it would cost us over $3 million a year just to do what the state recommends,” she said. “We don’t expect that, but it is food for thought. We just come up here and beg and that is all we can do.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.