Education supporters flood budget hearing

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 7, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — Teachers, students, parents and supporters painted the county board room red with their clothing Monday night for a public hearing on the budget.
Hundreds of people, most of them wearing red, attended the hearing held by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. They filled the meeting room, which holds 99 people, and spilled into an overflow room and the building lobby downstairs.
Rowan-Salisbury School System spokeswoman Rita Foil said the system printed 560 “SOS” — “Save Our Students” — stickers and ran out. She estimated around 700 attended to support the school system.
About 50 of those people spoke — many, but not all — about a $1 million cut to schools included in the county’s proposed budget. The cut, along with that of more than $2 million to county departments, was sought as a means of balancing the budget.
“The community has come out tonight wearing red to support education,” said Jim Emerson, chair of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education. With a smile, he added, “Thank you, Mr. Sides.”
Commissioner Jim Sides also donned a red shirt. He said after the meeting that he, too, supports education — “just not to the same level they do,” he joked. He has spoken in favor of the county’s cut.
Branson Pethel told commissioners that North Carolina and Rowan County rank below average in per pupil funding and teachers’ salaries.
He said he sent his daughter to school outside the Rowan-Salisbury system 10 years ago because he believed it to be below average. There are people there now who are dedicated to helping children succeed, he said, but the system could lose them to funding cuts.
“We need to send a message to our students and teachers that below average is not acceptable,” Pethel said. “They are as good as the rest of the nation, and they deserve to be funded as such.”
Emerson said Rowan-Salisbury Schools is just asking for its funding to stay the same — not an increase, not state average per pupil funding and not money to cover required state increases in employee benefits.
“Please join us in maintaining the current budget and the quality of education that our students deserve,” he said.
Assistant Superintendent Gene Miller said the school can “weather the state budget storm” of cuts — expected to total at least $7 million — as long as the county doesn’t cut even more.
He said the system cannot cut its budget further without laying off staff at the expense of students. Others who spoke said class sizes would increase with reductions in teachers and teacher assistants.
“Educational opportunities lost this year cannot be regained next year,” Miller said. “We have been able to save approximately $7 million in our fund balance, and that will allow us to get by another year or two if you do not decrease the budget.”
Several of the red-clad speakers said the system has been responsible by saving for a rainy day.
But some who spoke said Rowan-Salisbury Schools should use its fund balance to cover the county’s reduction.
“The county could recommend that $1 million be taken from the fund balance because it is taxpayer money, and the schools would experience no cut in funding,” said Dorothy Earle, a county resident.
She also said that contrary to an email sent out by Superintendent Judy Grissom,county funding to the schools has not been cut for the past two years.
Many people at the hearing talked about the importance of education and said a well-funded school system is important to the county’s economic and social future.
Dylan Eagle, student body president at Carson High School, said the schools are investing in children and teenagers like him for their future.
“That investment school systems are now able to make will not be possible if funding from the county is cut,” Eagle said.
Jody Zucchero said teachers like herself already are struggling to pay out of their own pockets for supplies.
Former Commissioner Tina Hall urged the board to reinstate its annual teacher supply money, which she said school representatives asked the county to use toward teaching positions.
“Money that had for years gone to help buy supplies in every classroom found its way to pad the school board’s general fund balance instead,” Hall said.
Hall also said the county only gives a minority share of school funding, and the state provides the majority.
Mackie McBroom, parent of a 2009 graduate, said he thinks the school system’s budget is sufficient and administrators should say exactly where and why more money is needed. Cost reductions should come from the top down, he said, not from the teachers in the classroom.
Shortly after the hearing began, the muffled sounds of a group chanting “save our schools” could be heard from the building’s lobby. Sheriff’s deputies asked them to stop, saying they were creating a disturbance at the meeting.
Only two fire commissioners spoke at the board’s earlier public hearing Monday for the proposed budgets of county volunteer fire departments.
“How many individuals are here in support of the fire tax rates their departments are recommending?” Chairman Chad Mitchell asked. About a dozen hands went up. “Is there anybody here in opposition?” No hands were raised.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.