We have limited funds. That was the message county and school officials tried to get across to each other at a joint meeting between the boards last week.
Both boards are in a situation of having to dip into their fund balances to balance their budgets. The county proposes to use $2 million from its fund balance, around half of which would come from Hold Harmless funds remaining in the 2011-12 budget, to balance its budget to avoid having to raise taxes. Stokes County Schools proposes to use around $1 million from its fund balance to keep staff maintained at current levels for one more year.
School and county officials and personnel gathered around tables in the third floor conference room at the Reagan Memorial Building in Danbury on June 15 to discuss the funding situation. The meeting began with presentations from County Manager Rick Morris and Schools Superintendent Ronnie Mendenhall about their proposed budgets. Mendenhall said his main focus with his budget was to maintain staffing levels and safety at each school.
Under the proposed county budget, Morris is recommending a net increase of $17,700 for the schools current expense budget. For the new Poplar Springs Elementary School, $117,700 would come from the four-cent school tax to fund operating expenses, but the contribution from the general fund would be $100,000 less than the previous year.
The school system requested around $2.7 million for capital outlay projects, around $2 million of which was for four roof repairs that the county had originally hoped to fund through Qualified School Construction Bonds but was not successful. The county is recommending an allocation of $320,000 for the school board for capital outlay with authorization to use up to $1 million from the school system’s fund balance as well.
Mendenhall said while he appreciated the authorization to use up to $1 million from the school system fund balance to pay for capital outlay projects, the school system has plans to use that $1 million to save jobs this year.
School board member Mike Rogers said if the school system used that money on roofs it would just mean that there would not be enough teachers in classrooms. Jamie Yontz, school board chair, said if those funds were not used to keep staff then they would all get calls from parents upset about their children’s class sizes increasing because of fewer teachers.
David Smith, also on the school board, asked about money from the four-cent tax being used for the proposed community college campus in Stokes. He said why could that not be put off for the time being. He pointed out that times were hard and could be worse next year.
The officials rehashed the purpose of the four-cent schools tax, which was set up to fund new school construction and the new community college campus. Commissioner Leon Inman said it was sold as a package deal, with the tax going to fund both. Commissioner Jimmy Walker said the community college was a selling point for the county.
Yontz said he hoped the county could find money somewhere to increase funding for schools. He later stated that more than the $117,000 was needed for the new Poplar Springs Elementary School. He said, “We have to be willing to support these schools if we’re going to build them.”
Mendenhall gave the commissioners a run-down of a number of unfunded mandates and money lost by the schools. Loss of over a million dollars in stimulus funds and the addition of operating costs for the new Poplar Springs Elementary School have contributed to the school system’s tight budget. He also alerted the commissioners that the system would be following new curriculum this year, common core and essential standards, as mandated by the state. This has led to additional training and instructional supplies costs over the past year and moving forward.
Commissioner Ernest Lankford pointed out that the county was facing the loss of Hold Harmless funds next year and decreasing property values with the revaluation, in addition to a mandated communications system upgrade. He said, “We’re in the same boat.”
Commissioner Ronda Jones said she thought one of the biggest things she was hearing from the discussion was that unfunded mandates from state and federal government was really affecting both boards. She said counties need to band together to tell government that “if you don’t pay, we don’t play.”
The board members all thanked each other for the beneficial discussion about each board’s funding situation.
Smith said, “I think it’s going to work out.”
Inman remarked, “As long as communication lines stay open you can accomplish good things.”
Morris said that the county could analyze the costs for Poplar Springs this year and see what else might be eligible to be paid for through the four-cent school tax, which has specific parameters set by the commissioners. The county board discussed this at its budget meeting on Tuesday but did not take any clear action to change school funding.
The Stokes County Board of Commissioners will next meet on Monday at 6 p.m. in Danbury for its regular fourth-Monday meeting and will likely meet the following day to hash out final details of the budget and approve it in time for the June 30 deadline.