We’ve gotten accustomed over the last several years to a fair amount of impassioned pleading and doomsday forecasting centered around the Moore County Board of Education’s budget request for the upcoming school year.
Someone was always expressing great angst that needs were not being suitably addressed in the budget. Not this year.
Although the board is embarrassingly cleaved by practical and ideological differences, the vote was unanimous for sending a $32.5 million local budget request to the Board of Commissioners.
But do not mistake this year’s relative fiscal harmony as a detente or “peace in our time” on the board. The real budget war, looming ominously on the horizon like the newest Marvel movie menace, is coming next year.
Key to this year’s unanimous support among the regularly divided board was agreement that a line-by-line examination and reconstruction of the 2022-23 budget would begin later this year.
The newest board members, David Hensley, Bob Levy and Philip Holmes, have said they want to know “what’s in the budget.” Although Hensley sits on the board’s budget subcommittee, he has said several times he doesn’t know what’s in it.
While he might not have the full cost implications of canned vs. fresh peaches in the West End Elementary cafeteria or the use of copier paper at Union Pines High, it strains credulity that he and other board members don’t know the budget basics.
Unstated — but highly implied — is that the overall schools budget is rife with wrong spending priorities and ill-advised costs. The three, running as a slate in last year’s elections, made the argument repeatedly that they would impose business-minded spending discipline on the district.
Again, the implication is that the district has not been doing that — that the budget is crammed with salary bloat while schools go without basic supplies. This persists despite the annual fiscal audits that state and federal law require of all school districts. Also, dense budget documents called “approved financials” exist on the district’s website for all to see and contain detailed pages of all money spent and received.
But those facts don’t appear to interest Hensley, Levy and Holmes, assuming they bothered to look. They want a full budget “gotcha!” or, in other words, an undertaking of the most micro of micromanaging. They have axes to grind, and they’re warming up the millstone.
The Battle Ahead
At the heart of Hensley’s request for a line-item review is that he can squeeze operations enough to wring out money to fund backlogged repairs and upgrades to buildings.
“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.”
Honest? Prior budgets weren’t? In truth, school districts do not have great leeway in how they spend their money. State and federal funds — the largest portions — must be spent how the state and Uncle Sam say. So that leaves the $32 million local allocation to fight over. And most of that goes to salaries and expenses the state once covered.
In reality, school boards don’t control their own budgets. That relies on the county commissioners, who have final say. Hensley, Levy and Holmes say the district has neglected maintenance and upkeep for years. But in reality, that blame lies with the commissioners, who, until a few years ago, did not regularly invest in such upkeep.
But the deal has been made and the Marvel movie menace is waiting in the wings. We are all in store later this year for a budget battle royale.