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School system irons out county funding request

SALISBURY — As Rowan-Salisbury Schools staff have prepared a budget message to the county commissioners on 2019-20 requests, the focus is on three central areas.

In one, additional support for the system’s renewal status and salaries and benefits, a total of $2.35 million in new funding was sought from the county. In area two, the system listed $146.6 million in capital needs, with $54.6 million in prioritized spending.

In area three, the crux of recent talks about school consolidation and the closures of Faith and Enochville elementary schools, an estimated $100 million in capital funding was identified over the next two years.

“We agreed that we would be more bold with our ask just because we’ve been a part of several conversations with the commissioners that indicated we could see up to $100 million available,” said Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon as she presented the first draft of the budget message on March 11.

Aggressive might be considered a mild adjective for a message laying out $156.95 million in needs. In its 2018-19 budget, the county provided the school system with $39.08 million.

Draft No. 2 of the message will be considered by Board of Education members on Monday and is due to commissioners by April 18.

Renewal, resources and repairs

According to the draft message, added funding of $2.35 million from the county would support local shares of proposed state budget increases for salaries and benefits, as well as Rowan’s progression as a renewal school district.

Local shares accounted for $792,000 of the added requests, and renewal support totaled $1.56 million for line items such as additional social workers and nurses, security at elementary schools, increased classified staff salaries and escalating maintenance costs.

For repairs, the school system staff prioritized $3.4 million in security improvements, $33.7 million in heating and air conditioning system repairs or replacements, $900,000 in disabilities compliance, $12.6 million in roofing, $2.7 million in doors and hardware and $1.3 million in potable water and water filtration.

Addressing plans for consolidation

It its closing paragraphs, the draft message offers a nod toward commissioners: “Rowan-Salisbury Schools is grateful for recent discussions with county commissioners regarding the possibility of as much as $100 million in capital funding over the next two years,” it reads.

And discussions between the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education have factored heavily into recent talks about the possible closures of Faith and Enochville elementary schools.

School board Chairman Josh Wagner presented a plan for the closures on March 11, a then two-year and $60 million effort that would bring $20 million each in renovations and upgrades to Knox Middle and North Rowan High schools and $19.5 million in repairs across the district.

That $60 million would come from a 2002-issued bond package, scheduled to be repaid and renewable by 2021. Draft No. 1 of the budget message listed aspects of this plan as uses for the proffered $100 million.

Public hearings to proceed with the plan were indefinitely canceled Monday as commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said the county may have more money to allocate toward the school system.

But “more” was not in excess of the posited $100 million.

“The only thing talked about publicly by the commissioners was the $60 million,” said Wagner, referring to the potential bond package. “We’ve had some discussions around the potential for additional tax revenue, but we know now that number’s not exactly what the county had hoped for.”

Revaluation numbers did move in a positive direction. Edds says a roughly 5 percent increase in property tax values was seen across the county.

The question remains: how much above the $60 million will the county be able to contribute? The Board of Education won’t know until the county completes its budgeting process by late spring or early summer, Wagner said.

“When I presented my plan, the only thing I knew we could definitely count on was that $60 million,” he said. “I said, ‘If this is all we know we’re going to get, let’s make a plan.'”

Additional funds could render his proposal obsolete or unnecessary — as could a reduction.

Uncertainty

County Commissioner Craig Pierce said he was unsure where the $100 million figure is coming.

“I’m not in the position to raise taxes to give (the school system) any more capital,” Pierce said.

He said the 2002 bond was passed by voters with the understanding that an associated increase in taxes would sunset once the debt was repaid.

“That doesn’t give us license to say we’ve already got it in the taxes, so let’s reissue it,” said Pierce. “It’s not in accordance to my conservative views to keep handing them money. We just finished building them a new elementary school; the paint ain’t even dry, and they’re wanting more.”

Regardless of whether the proposed capital funds will increase or decrease, Wagner said proceeding with closures would have been “unfair.”

The problem, he said, is that no budget numbers are yet set in stone.

Edds agreed.

“We’re in a really difficult time frame and position right now,” Edds said. “We’re just finding out about revaluation, and we’re just entering the budget season. … I think even within just a few weeks we’ll have a better understanding of what we can offer.”

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