School board members found consensus and a compromise of sorts on Monday night in adopting a Moore County Schools budget for the coming year.
The $32.5 million local budget that the Board of Education approved is designed to cover the costs associated with projected enrollment growth in the district and in charter schools, as well as $1.1 million to fund a new salary scale for supporting staff that the school board has tried for several years to implement.
Next week that local request will go to the Moore County Board of Commissioners, who have the final vote on whether or not it’s funded. The local ask is part of a larger $141 million budget including funding from state and federal sources.
All six school board members at Monday’s meeting — Stacey Caldwell did not attend — voted in favor of adopting the budget very much as originally proposed by Superintendent Bob Grimesey.
The board’s newest members have advocated for a full reconstruction of the budget from the bottom up. But they supported the proposal for this year as a “baseline” holdover from the current year, on the condition that the board conduct a line-by-line budget review by the end of 2021 in preparation for the following budget cycle.
That was one of three conditions initially proposed by board member David Hensley as amendments to Vice-Chair Pam Thmopson’s initial motion to approve the budget as presented by administrators on Monday. The other two conditions involved building maintenance and repairs. Hensley moved that going forward the board should commit to integrating school capital needs with each year’s budget process, and to spending all COVID-19 relief funding on deferred building maintenance.
“The budget ignores the elephant in the room, and the elephant in the room is the $110 to $130 million in unfunded capital repairs and maintenance,” said Hensley. “I believe that with the new school board we have a genuine chance to work with the county commissioners to fund the repairs, but we have to earn their trust and we have to present an honest plan that they can rely on.”
Moore County Schools is in line to receive $25.3 million in relief between the second round of federal funding in December and the most recent American Rescue Plan. Much of that money will come with specific directives, however, tying it to addressing learning loss and students who have lost ground over the last year.
Hensley later withdrew his motion and made a new one excluding any stipulation on the use of COVID-19 relief.
“Whether it’s library books, whether it’s teacher assistants in first or second grade classes, whether it’s additional teachers in fourth and fifth grade to help those struggling third graders catch back up over the next few years, we have got to really focus our money, our use of these COVID funds, on doing things that are going to bring our children back to a competitive level and I don’t know that capital repairs should be at the top of the list,” said Chair Libby Carter.
The local budget request represents a $2.1 million increase over Moore County Schools’ local operating budget for the current year. About $550,000 of that is projected to be passed on to charter schools to cover a projected increase in the number of students from Moore County enrolled. The traditional public schools are also anticipating slight enrollment growth next year.
About $550,000 of the new funding to the school district would go toward matching the salary increases that the state sets for all school employees, and to fund higher pay as teachers gain experience.
The $1.1 million remainder is designated for a new pay scale that would offer raises to unlicensed school support staff including bus drivers, custodians, teacher assistants and cafeteria workers. Moore County Schools formulated the proposed salary scale for classified employees several years ago, but have been unable to successfully fund it in the last two budget cycles.
Adjustments in what the school board will request the county commissioners allocate for capital expenditures and digital learning have been the only change in the substance of the budget since Grimesey initially presented it to the school board. For the last several years the county has set aside $750,000 annually for each of those funds aside from the district’s general operating budget. This year the board will ask for a slight increase to $778,275 to help account for cost inflation.
“There are some wonderful things in this budget,” said Hensley. “The per-pupil funding with increases tied to increases in Raleigh solve long standing issues with uncertainty in local funding, the classified staff raises are obviously long overdue and have the unanimous support of the board.”
But he criticized the “lack of clarity” provided in the basic budget proposal, and said that any future budgets should be based on a more exhaustive probe of each staff position and budgetary line item.
Thompson said that had been discussed in the superintendent’s budget committee, which included her, Carter and Hensley.
‘It was discussed that that would be forthcoming end of summer, early fall. So I think we have already discussed that, talked about that and coming in, knew that at this point in time with our new members coming on in December and with our budget calendar that the timing just did not permit us to go into line item by line item detail,” she said.
Board member Robert Levy supported Hensley’s motion, and suggested that the board might in the future make specific funding provisions for school-level expenses currently left to the discretion of individual principals.
“I agree that we haven’t had the time to go to a zero-based budget because of the time element and having to get this to the county commissioners,” he said. “But we very much need to get into the minutiae, especially things like library books, to make sure that every single library has a budget for new library books in every single year.”
Ed Dennison cast the sole vote against Hensley’s motion to tie adopting a budget to a granular review later on. However he later voted in favor of adopting the budget with that condition attached.
“To go over 27,000 items in a budget is, to me, unrealistic,” said Dennison. “We have a responsibility to provide the superintendent with what he feels he needs to accomplish what we want him to do. But I don’t think we should dictate to our principals how they should spend the money they have, and make it be the same for every school.”
In voting to adopt the budget the board also pledged to formulate a plan to fund its building repairs and maintenance that’s been put off for lack of funds. Moore County Schools typically receives about $1.6 million per year to cover those capital needs, between the $750,000 allotment from the county and another $850,000 or so from the state education lottery.
In North Carolina, county governments bear nearly full responsibility for building and maintaining public school campuses.
But just funding the district’s 20-year facility maintenance plan would require an additional $2 million annually, and a separate $31 million package of building improvements is scheduled for 2024.
Some school board members would prefer to take a more strategic approach to funding all of Moore County Schools’ building needs year by year, potentially using some of the district’s local operating funds.
“We’re going to be saying to the county commissioners: ‘Give us this budget that we’re asking you to give us today and we are going to come back to you with a plan to actually fix our schools,’ and I think that will be an impetus for the county commissioners to pass our budget,” Levy said.
“We show them that we’re serious about fixing these leaky roofs and these heating systems and the like and we show them the plan and we commit to that plan, they’re going to give us what we want this year.”
Carter was less sure, but ultimately voted with the rest of the board.
“I wholeheartedly support the idea of being able to do the deferred and routine maintenance that we have not been able to accomplish. Where I am hesitant is to get the support of the commissioners, and I know you feel very firmly that they’re going to step up and say they want to provide this amount of money,” she said. “Having been disappointed multiple times before, I am afraid that we may be disappointed again. But if we don’t ask, then we’ll never know.”
The school board’s newly-adopted budget sets the tone for another discussion with the county commissioners about how the schools will be funded in the coming years.
The board based the requested funding level on projected enrollment increases and the projected increase in funding from North Carolina based on the last four years of state school funding trends. Those factors could eventually play into a fixed formula to determine how much funding the county allots to Moore County Schools each year going forward, if the county is open to that possibility.
There’s no guarantee as of yet that the commissioners will either fulfill this year’s budget request or agree to adhere to such a funding formula long-term.
“We do not know if the commissioners will accept that idea, but it does give us a working platform to approach them and to perhaps convince them that this will be of benefit to their planning as well as to our planning as the years go on,” Carter said.