You couldn’t help but notice the optimism and more than a touch of pride last week as Bob Grimesey presented his 2019-20 budget to the Moore County Board of Education.
He has reason to be proud. Unlike the superintendent’s budget last year, it proposes no job cuts or spending reductions. This year, there’s money to open a new school, to expand technology funding, to add back some of the teachers cut last year. Not heavy on pilot programs or pie-in-the-sky ambitions, the schools budget is a solid request.
I also don’t think it has a prayer of getting approved.
To know me is to know I am one of the biggest proponents of the public school system, from its teachers and staff to its amazing students and their incredible achievements. But at some point you hit a low-balance warning in the goodwill bank. This is that time.
At the end of his hour-long budget presentation last week to the school board, Grimesey displayed a slide outlining eight ways past budgets have failed students, staff and this community.
“I want to remind us,” Grimesey said, “that for the last four years, we have failed year after year.”
But there’s also been an amazing amount of winning in that time, too:
* Cooperation between the school board and Board of Commissioners may never have been stronger, largely due to a good relationship between Grimesey and County Manager Wayne Vest.
* Commissioners have spent the county’s capital — and their own political capital — on greater education spending. They have committed to putting 40 percent of all revenue to education. Last year, that was $31 million and could be more this year.
* Commissioners agreed to build and pay for construction of the McDeeds Creek Elementary School — opening this August — to relieve severe crowding at two other elementary schools. They also agreed to borrow millions of dollars to fund renovations at North Moore High School. That work could begin this summer.
* Commissioners agreed to put before voters in 2018 a $103 million bond referendum to build new elementary schools in Aberdeen, Pinehurst and Aberdeen. It passed by a 4-1 margin.
* Commissioners backed a quarter-cent increase in the local sales tax and pledged to put that money toward paying for school construction. That increase went before voters last November and it also passed handily. The new tax begins April 1.
* Commissioners will likely approve some property tax increase this summer — the first in more than 10 years — to help repay the school construction debt. This is a huge leap of faith for a conservative Republican board that generally abhors any form of tax increase.
And as if all this wasn’t enough, commissioners last week agreed to cover a $2.6 million cost overrun to keep construction of a new Southern Pines Elementary on track.
This is a massive run of goodwill and support for public education over the past three years, and it is acknowledged and appreciated by the school district.
But the arc of this story may be at its zenith. Grimesey’s budget asks for $4.2 million more than last year, or 14 percent more than the $31 million allocated this current year.
Education advocates have been a vocal lot the last couple of years, demanding commissioners “fully fund” the schools budget. And the good news here is that Moore County sits in stellar financial health. Its cash reserves are around $50 million, and it has superior debt ratings. Some would say we have plenty of money in our wallet — and room on our credit cards — that we can just say “yes” to everyone and be fine.
But we live in a world of limits, of finite financial resources and competing interests. You don’t think the Department of Social Services has needs? Parks and Rec? What about new Sheriff Ronnie Fields? This is going to be his first budget since being elected in November. Don’t expect him to miss out making a compelling case for more deputies and jail guards.
Schools are not the only thing Moore County needs to build. It’s on the hook with the state judiciary to build a new courthouse. We’ll be looking at around $30 million for that project in the next couple of years.
The school board hasn’t voted on Grimesey’s budget yet — you can comment on it at a public hearing Monday evening in Carthage — but it offered an initial endorsement last week.
I know they have to be optimistic and go for it, but as much as I love the public schools, even I think this latest ask is one too many.