The Stokes County Board of Commissioners and School Board met Tuesday to discuss funding for the school system for next year, highlighting budget shortfalls both boards are facing.
“There are no wishes in this budget,” Schools Finance Director Lannette Moore told the boards after giving a breakdown of how the school system had made cuts over the past several years, including a number of big cuts before approving next year’s proposed budget.
She said the school system was facing decreases in state funding, decreases in fines and forfeiture monies and close to $400,000 in additional costs to provide one-to-one devices for students at West Stokes and South Stokes high schools and to continue the existing school resource officers program.
“Even with all of that the total proposed school budget is only increasing by $91,333,” she said, noting that decreases in the school system’s fund balance, which it has relied on to balance budgets in previous years, meant that the school system was having to ask the county for $597,791 in additional funding for next year.
County Manager Rick Morris has proposed a budget which would cut school funding from the $10,211,763 provided this year to $9,817,340 for next year, leaving the school system with a close to $1 million budget shortfall from their proposed $11,337,935 budget.
Moore and several school board members said they were not sure where they could cut their budget to balance it, noting that a large portion of the budget was mandated by state and federal requirements and general operation costs like insurance and utilities which the school system had little control over.
“If the board were to ask me today where to find a million dollars, I would say the one place they would have to look would be the teacher supplement,” said Moore. “It has been in place since 1979 so that would be a major step back. I don’t know where else you could find it.”
School Board Chair Sonya Cox said the supplement, which is supposed to provide teachers with four percent more than their state salaries, has been frozen at 2014 salary levels.
“It would defiantly take us back many years as a county in terms of what we can offer our employees at a time when our own county manager’s budget message said the main issue in the county was competitive salaries,” she said. “We are going to loose some key people and salary is a key part of that.”
School Board members said they had already gone through their budget with a fine tooth comb trying to cut any expenses they could.
“We have already made serious cuts that have effected a lot of things and we hope we do not have to make any more,” said Becky Boles.
Pat Messick said the school system needed the county to fund the full budget request.
“Please help us stop the bleeding,” she said. “If this budget is not totally funded many valuable programs and personnel will be lost. School resource officers will have to be cut because of under-funding. These cuts will most certainly undermine our student’s education.”
Jamie Yontz said the school system was also facing major facilities repairs and said maintaining the supplement was key to keeping quality teachers in the county.
“Our education system is great because of great people and those people are leaving,” he said. “They are working for a lot less than our neighboring counties and if you pull the supplement out form under them it will be catastrophic. That is the one line item where we can get that much money right now.”
Bill Hart said education was key to the county growing its economic base.
“I am a perfect example of some one who would not want you to raise taxes,” he said. “I have no children or grandchildren in the schools and I have a big farm. I don’t want to pay more taxes, but we have to provide services for our county. You have to decide how you are going to provide those services. Either you are or you are not.”
Cox noted that if the full budget request was not funded then the one-to-one devices for South and West would likely not happen, saying they were funded through a $200,000 Golden Leaf grant which required a $200,000 local match and the addition of a technology coordinator which would cost $73,000 each year.
“You are making an investment in the future when you do that,” she said. “I know you know that technology is important and you are looking at bringing the whole county into the 21st century.
“Excellence in education does not come without a high price tag,” she added. “If we want to close the achievement gap then we have to close the funding gap.”
Board of Commissioners Chair Leon Inman said a large part of the funding problem was a result in cuts from state and federal funding and the rise of charter schools which siphon away public funding.
“I feel ripped off as a citizen,” agreed Commissioner Ronda Jones. “We are left holding the financial bag trying to hold up the county knowing that the demographics cannot handle a tax increase. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Commissioners James Booth and Ernest Lankford said they wanted to help the schools as much as possible but noted the county was facing its own budget issues.
“We are kind of in the same boat, we are facing the same problems,” said Booth. “We are spending close to 52 percent of ad valorem taxes for the schools. We are looking at everything and seeing what we can do, but to a certain extent our hands are tied. I don’t know what we can do yet.”
Lankford said he appreciated the school system trying to cut its budget, but noted that the county had to look at funding needs for all county services.
“We have a lot of funding that we do not have anymore,” he said. “Where does that leave you? That leaves you with putting the burden on people who do not have the money to start with or you try to work with what you have. I believe in fairness. I don’t believe in looking at one group of people over another.”
He noted that if the school system cut supplement pay, that would be a decision by the school board, not the board of commissioners.
Commissioner Jimmy Walker said the county was facing one of the most difficult budgets he had ever seen.
“It is scary to be honest with you,” he said. “Where is the balance between what is as fair as we can be to the schools and as fair as we can be to the tax payers?”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.