Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Rowan County Commissioner Jim Sides continues to complain about a $9 million speck in the school board’s eye while saying comparatively little about the $41 million plank in the commission’s own eye.
The subject is the county’s $128 million budget for 2007-08 and the fund balance commissioners have accumulated through conservative budgeting over the years.
At Monday’s board of commissioners meeting, Sides said residents had been overtaxed so the school system could build a $9 million fund balance. Granted, that’s much more than a speck. But Sides did not mention that, by the end of this month, county government will have a $41.7 million fund balance of its own, about $20 million of which has not been designated for a particular purpose. The fund balance acts as a legally required cushion, but it’s a good bit fluffier than the minimum 8 percent of the county budget it has to be.
Seems like that might have something to do with the burden the county puts on taxpayers, too.
Superintendent Judy Grissom has reported the system’s fund balance to be $6 million, by the way, not $9 million. And $2.9 million of that has not been designated.
There’s more emotion than fact behind some of the numbers commissioners toss around. Sides and Tina Hall insist taxpayers cannot afford a 2-cent tax increase to improve schools. If recent years are any indication, though, the county may have the money to give the schools more money without a tax increase. For the past six years, county government has underspent its budget and socked away another million or more a year. But that’s not the way commissioners paint the budget picture at all. It’s dire straits and an either-or choice ó either the commission approves the tax increase for education, or the tax rate remains revenue neutral and the school system has to settle for less.
If commissioners are concerned about using one-time fund balance money for ongoing programs, the school system has $24 million in maintenance needs the county could make a nice dent in.
To anyone who has followed county government, this is an all-too-familiar dynamic. The other three commissioners come off as heroes by agreeing to give the schools a $2.5 million increase and reach the state average in per-pupil spending. And school supporters are thankful for that. Chairman Arnold Chamberlain, Vice Chairman Chad Mitchell and Commissioner Jon Barber deserve accolades for being more open to the schools’ requests than Sides and Hall.
But the system requested an increase of more than $5.7 million to keep up with growth, increase teachers’ supplements, cover mandatory salary increases, improve alternative school offerings, add literacy coaches, open another new elementary school and cover expenses it had to pay for last year out of its fund balance. Those are hardly frills, especially for a system needing to improve performance by federal measures imposed under No Child Left Behind. The $2.5 million increase will just keep the system’s head above water.
Too bad the schools don’t have a $41 million plank.