Moore County Schools’ proposed budget for the upcoming year drew mixed feedback during a public hearing on Monday evening.
The Moore County Board of Education heard general support for the proposed $2.1 million local funding increase from eight parents, alumni, and school supporters during the virtual hearing. Where they broadly endorsed the budget itself, all who commented objected to the proposal that local school funding be tied to enrollment levels and fluctuations in state funding long-term.
Superintendent Bob Grimesey has proposed a 2021-2022 budget that totals $141 million, including $32.5 million from the county commissioners. That’s $2.1 million more than the county allocated to Moore County Schools for the current year’s operating expenses.
Federal and state funding comprise the bulk of the district’s budget, but most of that money comes pre-designated for specific line items. So the schools use their local operational funding, which can be spent at administrators’ discretion, to make up for shortfalls and add staff and services beyond what the state funds.
But the school board has to approve its budget request based on projections, since the county and state won’t adopt their budgets until later in the year. Moore County’s board of commissioners previously resolved to allocate 40 percent of the county’s revenue to Moore County Schools’ operating expenses, but that was not strictly observed and the commissioners abandoned the resolution last year.
Board Considers Funding Formula
This year the school board’s budget committee proposed another way to make local funding more predictable from year to year: a per-pupil local funding formula. New board member David Hensley, who is on the committee along with Chair Libby Carter and Vice-Chair Pam Thompson, suggested tying local school funding to enrollment in Moore County Schools and public charters along with increases or decreases in funding from North Carolina.
With Grimesey’s endorsement, the rest of the board is now considering the idea.
“For years, the way that the funding for all students in Moore County was done … when our budget is approved a certain amount of money is given to us that we distribute based on the number of students in Moore County.”
“What we’re looking for is a way — before, the county commissioners talked about 40 percent of the budget for us — that we can determine how much money we can expect from the county based on the money we are receiving from the state,” said board member Ed Dennison. “If the state money improves for us, then the county money will go with the same percentage. We haven’t worked that out in detail yet, but that’s the idea of it.”
So this year’s proposed local budget request is based on the 3.7 percent average increase in state funding to Moore County Schools over the last four years as well as projected enrollment increases of 100 students in Moore County Schools and 225 in public charters.
Andrew Cox, the district’s executive officer for budget and finance, said that with the proposed increase local funding would work out to a per-student allocation of $2,340 — or about $85 per student more than the current year.
Commenters Argue Against Formula
But those who wrote and called in to comment during the public hearing on Monday argued against that method as a way to determine local funding to public schools long-term. They said that a consistent dollar value cannot be applied to children with a vast array of individual needs.
Attendance in the board meeting room at Moore County Schools’ central office was severely limited due to social distancing requirements, but residents arranged to call in during the public hearing or have their emailed comments read aloud.
Jessica Christy-Bowman attributed her recent graduation to a school psychologist who developed an individualized education program in her first grade year that saw her through to high school.
“She didn’t throw me away because I couldn’t do math, and she made sure no one else could throw me away either,” Christy-Bowman wrote.
“Kids like me cost a lot of extra money. Really smart kids cost extra money, too. When you decide to put a set dollar amount on each of us that’s the same, you fail us all. Don’t do that just because it makes things easier for you.”
Others expressed concerns that tying local funding to what the state does might leave the district to cut staffing and services if the state cuts school funding in the future and has no mechanism to ask the county to help fill in the gaps.
“Turning over the county’s school budget to the political machinations of Raleigh make the entire school system partisan, and would require it to become involved in partisan politics in unforeseen and undesirable ways,” said Lowell Simon.
Karin Kent, a Pinecrest parent and longtime school advocate, pointed out that state budget decisions have already forced the district to make cuts to compensate. State funding increases tend to come in the form of higher pay for teachers and other staff, which leaves Moore County Schools to find funding to maintain similar pay for the 150 staff members who are paid with local funds.
Similarly, the state in recent years has cut down on local school districts’ flexibility in staffing kindergarten through third grade classrooms by ratcheting down on the maximum allowable class sizes in those grades. The state provides funding for teaching positions at each grade level based on the entire district’s enrollment, rather than by school.
So complying with the new class size requirements without commensurate funding has forced the district to move teaching positions from higher grades. Some local funds have been freed up when the legislature introduced new funding for art, music and PE teachers, but many classes in grades four through eight still have upwards of 30 students.
That willful disregard of reality is irresponsible and dangerous to the mission of Moore County Schools,” Kent wrote. “Longtime students of funding cannot see this (per-pupil funding formula) as a good idea. Where is the detailed analysis of the deleterious warehouse effect or the effect of unfunded state mandates? Where has the recognition of the crippling effect of unreimbursed benefit inflation gone? Has the institutional memory of all the formula-focused cuts since 2014 disappeared?”
Both Cheryl Christy-Bowman and Alex Patti noted disappointment in their letters to the board that the proposed budget does not go so far as to request funding to add teachers in grades four through eight or otherwise improve school services.
The board cut 15 teaching positions to balance the 2018-2019 budget. That was the district’s final step in about $2.7 million in cuts starting in 2014 to discontinue its regular use of the district’s dwindling savings account. Those cuts included five central office administrators, the popular year-round calendar options at four elementary schools, and a Spanish immersion program at West End Elementary.
For the last two budget cycles, the board has approved a local budget request that would restore teaching positions to fourth and fifth grades. But those requests went unfulfilled in the county’s final budget.
“I appreciate the ask for increased dollars, but it concerns me that the money will only cover current costs and does nothing to add teachers to address the overcrowding in higher grades created by the (General Assembly's) unfunded K-3 class size mandate,” Christy-Bowman wrote.
“Having said that, I understand the political reality in this county and understand that asking for more from our county commissioners is a waste of time.”
The proposed $2.1 million increase would cover the implementation of a new pay scale for unlicensed support staff including bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers at $1.1 million.
“I commend you for prioritizing the classified staff salary scale implementation,” said Alexa Roberts, a McDeeds Creek parent and mayor of Whispering Pines. “I know this is a big portion of the budget request again this year, and for the third year I would say how important it is to ensure that classified staff are paid at rates commensurate to their service and that are competitive with our county and also nearby counties.”
Another $550,000 or so would go toward matching the salary increases that the state sets for all school employees, and to fund higher pay as teachers gain experience.
Moore County Schools also acts as a flow-through for county funding to local charter schools where county students are enrolled, and projects that disbursements to charters will increase by more than $500,000 next year as those schools add students.
But while the district is legally obligated to pass along local funds for charter school students at an equal per-pupil level to Moore County Schools students, some parents worry that transposing a similar formula to the district’s entire local budget will give charters a competitive advantage in the longer term.
“The county’s public schools will not be improved by consolidating bus routes, eliminating positions, cutting programs, inadequately compensating teachers and staff, or offering an exit path for a small, select group,” wrote Rita Ray, who has two daughters in Moore County Schools.
Laura McNeill said that Moore County Schools’ fixed costs wouldn’t necessarily change based on enrollment fluctuations of a few dozen students across 22 campuses. But the resulting loss of funding resulting from a per-pupil formula could be the equivalent of one or two teaching positions.
“In this free country, there are many families who choose traditional public education. In many cases, families choose Moore County for their excellent schools,” McNeill wrote. Those families deserve fully-funded schools, just as families who choose charter schools do as well. Public education is not a business. Students are not digits, and their individual needs are not line items. Capitalism should be taught in schools, not used to run them.”
View the Budget and Provide Feedback:
Moore County Schools’ online portal for public feedback on the budget will remain open until March 19. It can be accessed at www.ncmcs.org.
The board will vote on adopting the budget on April 12, the final meeting before the district makes a formal request of the county commissioners on April 20.