When the Moore County Board of Education approved a $125 million budget with more than $35 million in local funding, school board members acknowledged their ambition in setting that goal.
The schools’ local funding request for the 2019-2020 school year represents a 14 percent increase over the current year’s funding level, or a $4.2 million increase.
Even so, school board members on Monday unanimously agreed that the $1.5 million increase included in the budget County Manager Wayne Vest proposed last week would barely preserve the district’s current operations.
Of that figure, almost half will pay to operate McDeeds Creek Elementary on Camp Easter Road, which will open in August. The $740,000 cost to run McDeeds for a year was a one-time ask for the schools, since once the current Aberdeen and Southern Pines schools are closed in 2020 the district will be operating one school fewer than it is now.
With that aside, the $31.8 million local funding proposal is an $850,000 increase over the current year and close to what the schools received for 2017-2018.
“Every single item included in the request is an item that is clearly needed for the continuation or support of programs that are already within our schools. We are not asking for new programs or enhanced supports; we are asking to maintain the programs that already exist within Moore County and to provide the personnel necessary to make them all work,” said school board Vice-Chair Libby Carter.
“We all know that our budget request included a large increase, but I think we can agree that we did not go into this lightly.”
While the county’s budget proposal included an increase in school funding, board members maintain that it’s not enough to compensate for the increasing limitations on how the schools can spend their state funds.
“I’d just like to point out that the real problem is at the state level,” said board member Ed Dennison. “Statutorily, the commissioners are responsibly for construction and those types of costs and the state is responsible for operating costs, and the state’s not pulling their weight.”
In its request for a $4.2 million funding increase, the school board hoped to restore many of the cuts that were made to balance the budget last year — namely 13 teachers in grades 4-12 — and increase employee pay.
This past school year, class sizes in those grades — particularly fourth, fifth, and middle school — crept up as the district cut teachers. Class sizes in kindergarten through third grade are protected by state statute. They get smaller each year as the state attempts to improve learning by third grade, which is considered a make-or-break point for literacy.
“Not being able to fund those teachers, we’re going to continue increasing in (class) size and I don’t know any other profession that has a frontline person, aka teachers, supervising 30-plus people,” said school board member Betty Wells Brown.
Without adjusting how funds were allocated this year, Superintendent Bob Grimesey outlined how the schools would use the proposed $850,000 increase.
Based on enrollment projections, the schools anticipate needing nine additional teachers in kindergarten through third grade. The state will fund seven of them — indirectly, through a new allocation for art, music, and PE teachers — while the local funding increase would cover the remaining two.
The district also anticipates needing an additional $250,000 to fund charter schools based on projected enrollment growth of 75 students. That funding comes directly from Moore County Schools’ budget, although students enrolling in charters may not necessarily have attended the traditional public schools here.
Nearly half of the increase could go to match increases in the state’s base teacher salary. While the state pays for those raises for the teachers it funds, the number of teachers the state pays is based on enrollment. In an attempt to distribute teachers across more than 20 schools and control class sizes, the district pays for dozens of teachers beyond the state allocation out of funding from the county.
“It’s difficult to hire highly-qualified, certified staff,” Carter said. “There just aren’t enough teachers to fill all the classrooms and for us not to be able to keep up with the salary step that we use within our supplement program is worrisome. It’s just a small tool in the recruitment process, but sometimes it makes a difference.”
If the county commissioners pass their budget as presented, the district will have to defer or find another way to cover more than $3 million in priorities
“The presentation tonight does not pretend to have the answers; the presentation tonight defines the implications. Obviously we still have work to do,” said Grimesey. “We don’t pretend to think that we’re going to get a whole lot more money, so the staff right now has to plan for the worst-case scenario.”
Those priorities include $850,000 to implement a new salary scale for unlicensed “classified” employees. Teacher assistants, cafeteria staff, bus drivers, custodians and maintenance workers fall into that category.
The district formulated its proposed scale with the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, which worked on a similar scale that Moore County’s government implemented for this year. The scale is based on salary data collected from neighboring counties and school systems, and establishes pay increases based on employees’ work experience and years with Moore County Schools.
“We recognized that once we moved our certified employees to a scale, and once the county moved all of its employees to a scale, the only group that was left that had not received that kind of attention were the classified employees for Moore County Schools.”
“It would be our first opportunity our classified employees have had to see a modest growth every year, consistently,” Grimesey said.
“I had thought that we might be able to … at least get it started and maybe work it in over three years, but at $850,000 it’s a nonstarter and I’ll be apologizing to all of our classified employees for having misled them into thinking that was a possibility. I honestly thought, this year, that this was something that was reasonable and it does not appear as though it was. I probably should never have indicated that we even had any hope.”
About $240,000 of the schools’ proposed budget increase would have covered the salaries of nurses, counselors and similar support staff that the district is now funding from money saved over several years from federal Medicaid reimbursements and military impact aid payments. Those banked federal funds are limited, and will run out in the next year or two.
Carter also pointed out that the county has yet to address Moore County Schools’ 20-year plan to maintain school buildings. While the county will consider increasing taxes this year to pay for $103 million in general obligation bonds approved last year to build three elementary schools, the district has older facilities to maintain as well.
Over the next two decades, keeping up with the maintenance of existing schools is projected to cost nearly $2 million per year.
“I’m also concerned that we have not even approached them seriously on the $1.9 million that’s needed to continue with capital improvements on our older schools,” Carter said. “We know what happens when you neglect schools: they fall down around you. For this funding not to occur, this additional $1.9 million which we’re going to be needing on an annual basis, is very disturbing.”
The Moore County Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed county budget on June 18 at the historic courthouse in Carthage. A vote is scheduled following the hearing.