In tight vote, RSS board gives staff more financial freedom

Published 9:22 pm Monday, October 14, 2019

SALISBURY — After more than an hour of debate, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education on Monday gave the staff additional financial autonomy to repurpose money this year from unfilled positions.

Instead of needing board approval, Rowan-Salisbury Schools staff this year will be able to approve salary increases of as much as $10,000 through repurposing “lapsed salaries.” The staff previously was required to stay under a cap of $5,000.

Any position created with a salary of less than $100,000 a year also can be approved by the staff.

This fiscal year, any salary money repurposed for professional development, instructional support, field trips, furniture, fixtures and equipment will not need board approval either.

Voting in favor of the proposal presented by Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon were Vice Chairwoman Susan Cox, Kevin Jones, Alisha Byrd-Clark and Jean Kennedy. Voting against it were Chairman Josh Wagner, Travis Allen and Dean Hunter.

Principals present at Monday’s meeting stressed that the allowances, which do not extend into next fiscal year, are not an automatic “green light,” with Knollwood Elementary School Principal Shonda Hairston saying she regularly communicates with central office finance staff “to think things through.”

Salisbury High School Principal Luke Brown was among the principals in attendance Monday, and he described an online night school program that he created for students who have had a large number of absences and had trouble attending school during traditional hours. The reasons he cited for that difficulty included needing to work or having a child.

Brown said he believes three of the 35 students who participated in the program “were able to walk across the stage in June and probably would not have made it” with traditional school hours. He said there were underclassmen participating in the program, too.

Brown addressed concerns about the extra autonomy by saying, “I feel a profound responsibility to spend tax dollars in a wise way.”

Herndon and Superintendent Lynn Moody said the additional flexibility would allow the school system to be “more nimble,” not having to wait for a school board meeting to make a decision.

“We’re 30 days out of a decision at any point in time instead of a decision in 24 hours, which is usually what we can do for simple questions,” Moody said.

The teacher turnover rate is 15%, slightly higher than the state average, said Rowan-Salisbury Schools staff.

But concerns among school board members Monday ranged from the potential reaction from Rowan County commissioners, who set funding for public schools, to maintaining programs or positions funded with repurposed money after a vacant position is filled.

Wagner, for example, said an estimated $2.9 million in “alternative spending” over the prior year could have been used to address the school system’s capital and maintenance needs instead of salary increases, new positions or new programs. And he also asked the staff to guarantee it wouldn’t come back to request funding for new positions and projects.

“Our needs are always more than the funding is,” Moody said.

The costs of providing fringe benefits are rising, and that’s reason enough to request an increase, she said.

After the meeting, Wagner clarified that his vote did not relate to any lack of confidence in the staff to do their jobs. Rather, the system needs to use its own lapsed salary funding for maintenance and capital needs instead of asking for more from the Rowan County commissioners.

Speaking in favor of the changes, Cox said, “We have professional educators that are asking for the freedom to repurpose monies. … They best know the needs of students.”

After the debate dragged on, Kennedy called for “orders of the day” or a return to the item on the agenda.

Allen made a motion that would have approved the proposal as presented, but his motion mandated a lower amount that could be repurposed from each vacant position. Instead of being able to use 90% of “lapsed salaries,” the staff would have been able to use only 80%, with the other 20% going to the system’s savings. That proposal failed, with only one vote in favor.

Jones made a motion to pass the proposal presented by Herndon. It was seconded by multiple board members before receiving a tight, final approval.