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At the choke point on school funding

New norm: Don’t count on the old norm.
That’s how reporter Mark Wineka summed up the discussion Friday when area mayors and Rowan County commissioners met at the Chamber of Commerce. The local tax base is growing only incrementally. After decades of delivering hefty increases for local government, property tax revenues are going to stay relatively flat for the foreseeable future.
The news might be the worst for school systems around the state, including Rowan-Salisbury Schools. They’re getting it from all sides. The General Assembly has pared education spending way back. Federal stopgap funding has run out. Local boards of commissioners don’t begin to have the revenue to make up the difference, and high unemployment discourages them from raising the tax rate.
That’s the new norm.

Under the old norm, Rowan County regularly gave the school system million-dollar-plus increases each year. You can trace the path of the economy in the changes in school funding from year to year:
• $3.4 million increase for 2006-07.
• $2.6 million increase for 2007-08.
• $1.9 million increase for 2008-09.
• Flat in 2009-10, with $375,000 in teacher-supply funds allocated to the system, instead, to save positions.
• $690,000 increase for 2010-11
• $1 million DECREASE for 2011-12
• $1 million reinstated for 2012-13
That last budget put the local allocation to the school system at $31.8 million for current expenses this year.
Each of those years, the school board asked for more than it received. So when school finance officer Tara Trexler presented commissioners last week with a request for a $4.6 million increase for the schools, the figure seemed like more of a starting point than a real expectation.
The same goes for the $109 million in building needs that Gene Miller described.
Though they won’t vote on the budget until June, probably, commissioners started staking out their positions Monday. Vice Chair Craig Pierce read from the N.C. statute that gives the state responsibility for funding school operations and counties the job of building and maintaining buildings.
I’m not sure the state has ever fully lived up to its end of that bargain. The statute appears to be more aspiration than reality. It’s like the Pirate’s Code of movie fame — “more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
At least that’s the way the General Assembly treats school funding.
Rowan may indeed be near the “choke point” in its budget, as Pierce put it, and lawmakers are doing nothing to relieve the pressure.
Meanwhile, the school system is responsible for educating our future workforce, some 20,000 kids who can’t put off their education until the economy gets better.
“We shouldn’t starve our children’s education,” Commissioner Jon Barber said, adding that meeting the state average in local per-pupil spending is not a great goal. “We shouldn’t aspire to mediocrity.”
Commissioner Chad Mitchell sounded sympathetic to the schools — as he should, since he is a teacher and sees the challenges firsthand. But he’s also a commissioner and knows the realities of the county budget. “We can’t make up for all those cuts,” Mitchell said.
Commissioner Mike Caskey’s contribution to the conversation was to say that $4.8 million is a lot of money and to ask if the school board wanted commissioners to raise the tax rate.
The school request doesn’t address that issue.
So, here we go. It’s “Groundhog Day.” Every spring commissioners wake up to a request they consider too high, so they start debating and whittling and holding hearings until finally they come up with an allocation that seems to please no one.
Chairman Jim Sides is tired of that, and aren’t we all? As he said, this is a statewide issue. Commissioners virtually everywhere are being asked to make up for state cuts, and most counties cannot afford to do that.
“The monkey’s put on our back,” Sides said.
Sides wants the state to develop a formula for counties’ share of school funding so, just as the state allocates money on a per-pupil basis, counties could too.
Something’s got to give. The way legislators in Raleigh have been talking, the schools may be about to lose teachers’ assistants in the lower grades and have to increase the number of students in each class.
Educators’ dismay falls on deaf ears in Raleigh; the schools are at their own choke point. So they turn to the county commissioners for help.
The school board has discussed cuts to everything from coach and teacher supplements to media assistants, art and music and AIG staff. Is that what the people of Rowan County want?
“I hope you understand we’re not your enemies,” Sides told school officials. “We’re your friends.”
Maybe that’s part of the new norm, too. We will see.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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