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At budget workshop, commissioners still stuck on schools

SALISBURY — After a budget workshop Monday, county commissioners still haven’t agreed on how much money they will give to local schools. At a special meeting of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, board members cast tentative “straw votes” on different parts of the budget. It plans to vote on the budget itself at its June 17 meeting.
County Manager Gary Page has recommended dropping the school system’s operational funding by about $250,000. This would keep per-pupil funding the same after an estimated enrollment drop of 140 students next year.
Commissioners Mike Caskey and Craig Pierce said they want to go with the county manager’s recommendations for school funding.
“I understand with the state cutting funds like they have for five consecutive years, they don’t have the money they probably should have, but they can’t keep coming to the county expecting us to make up the difference,” Pierce said.
Commissioner Jon Barber suggested not only keeping school funding at the current year’s level, but also increasing it by $820,000.
That would include $345,000 that the county reverted from the schools in the spring of 2009, $375,000 moved from classroom supply money to general operations, and $100,000 to offset a state-mandated 10-cent increase in school meal prices.
Commissioner Chad Mitchell said he wants to keep the $250,000 that is set to be cut for the loss of enrollment.
“I don’t believe the county could, nor do I think the county can, shoulder the brunt of those (state) cuts,” Mitchell said. “I do think we should do everything we can to keep it on an appropriate level with last year.”
He said he also wouldn’t mind allowing the schools to have flexibility with the $375,000 classroom supply money. The county has done this before when the school system requested it.
But Chairman Jim Sides said he wants to reduce funding even more than Page’s recommendation.
He said he wants to re-affirm the commissioners’ decision at a previous meeting to withhold state sales tax funds from the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education until it agrees to draw down lottery funds from the state.
He also made a motion to deduct $800,000 from the school system’s current expense funding for this year and next year, in order to get back the lottery money that the county has already paid in debt service.
His motion died without a second.
Pierce said he can’t support Sides’ motion, but he does support the withholding of state sales tax funds until the county receives lottery funding from the state.
Pierce’s motion passed 3-2, with Barber and Mitchell voting against.
At a June 3 meeting, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education voted to add a disclaimer to the signed form to authorize the drawing down of lottery funds. It states that the board does not necessarily agree with the way the county plans to spend the money, and it is pursuing legal options for addressing that.
“They voted to sign this form, but they sent it in a form that the lottery people are not going to accept, and they’re not going to send the funds down to us,” Sides said.
The county has used the lottery money to pay school bond debt for the past several years. Miller and other school board members say the money should pay for capital needs before going toward debt service. Sides has argued that the county has the authority to decide how the money is spent.
After the meeting, Sides said the county hasn’t actually gotten word from the state or an attorney about whether the form would be accepted.
But the school board has, said its chairman.
After Monday’s meeting, Richard Miller sent a Post reporter a copy of an email sent Friday by Kenneth Phelps, architect and school planning consultant with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
“An application for lottery funding exhibiting the signatures of both chairpersons will be accepted for funding regardless of the attachment of a disclaimer,” Phelps wrote to school officials.
Miller said the board agreed to sign the form because sales tax money is the system’s only source for school maintenance.
He said he expects the funding to be authorized by the end of the month.
Later in the meeting, Caskey said he doesn’t think the county has the money to fund full-time school resource officers (SROs) at all of its middle schools in the coming year.
But he said he would like to allocate up to $30,000 to hire off-duty law enforcement officers to serve part-time at some or all of the schools.
Commissioners disagreed on whether the money should be allocated to the school system with an earmark or paid through the county’s law enforcement budget.
Finance Director Leslie Heidrick said the county can’t legally pay the same individual as a full-time employee and as a contractor.

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