After holding a majority on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners for nearly six years, the five Republican commissioners may finally be losing their never deserved image as the evil grinches of school funding.
Though the five Republicans – along with some Democratic commissioners on the board – still take a lot of heat from school advocates who say the county doesn’t give enough money to the school system each year, a review of the last decade of school funding shows that the Republican-led board is more generous with increases in funding than the Democrat-led board was in the years leading up to 2012, when the Republicans won the majority on the board.
Last month, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners came under fire at the public hearing on the budget – with many school advocates questioning the county’s commitment to the schools. But the facts are hard to ignore: Every year since the Republicans took control of the Board of Commissioners, the county has increased funding for school operations – whereas, in the years leading up to 2012, the Democratically controlled board didn’t increase school funding for operations by even one dollar for four years.
Republican Guilford County commissioners say they’ve been frustrated with the image continuously promoted by some that they have somehow been unsupportive of school funding, when the opposite is true.
In the 2011-2012 budget, adopted by a Board of Commissioners controlled by Democrats, the schools got $175,165,521 in county money for school operations, which is the same amount, to the dollar, the schools got from the county for that purpose in 2010-2011. It is also the same amount, to the dollar, the county handed over to the schools for operations in 2009-2010. It’s also, the same amount the county gave in the 2008-2009 budget.
In the last county budget determined by a Democratic majority-led board – the 2012-2013 budget – there was a $465,000 bump in funding for school operations, but that was certainly nowhere near as generous as the increases in school funding that followed, starting the next year, once the board was controlled by a Republican majority.
When the Republicans – who in recent years have often been vilified by some outspoken school advocates – took over, the Republicans’ first budget, the 2013-2014 budget, the board added about $1.5 million for school operations, raising that total to $177.1 million. In the following 2014-2015 budget, the Republican board increased that amount by about $2.3 million to $179.4 million. Then, in the 2015-2016 budget, Guilford County’s funding for school operations jumped about $4 million to $183.4 million, which was followed in the 2016-2017 budget by an increase of about $4.9 million to $188.3 million. The county’s funding for school operations then leaped about $7 million to $195.9 million in 2017-2018 and, in the latest budget adopted last month, the commissioners added another $7 million to put that number at about $202 million.
In every year since the Republicans have held power, many school officials have asked for more money and some have said the county’s contributions to schools wasn’t adequate, even though the total for all school funding provided by the county – for operations, capital and school bond repayment – comes to 46 percent of the county’s total budget.
The increases in school funding have come about even though the number of students in the school system has remained flat since the Republicans took control of the board nearly six years ago. The school system’s student population has remained at about 73,000. That student population was increasing – albeit only slightly – when the Democratically led board was holding school funding steady year after year.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said he does think that the five Republicans on the board have gotten a bad rap when it comes to school funding given the actual county contributions. He said the commissioners take a lot of heat at budget time from school advocates who want to see the school systems request met in full every year.
This year, Democratic commissioners on the Board of Commissioners, as they usually do, also fought hard to get extra money for the schools into the 2018-2019 budget. Democratic Guilford County Commissioner Carlvena Foster, for instance, is a former Guilford County Board of Education member and many times she still sounds and acts like one; each year, Foster wants the county to give the schools every dime they request.
Branson said he thinks relations between Guilford County and the school system are improving. The commissioners are meeting and working more with school officials on issues like school security, and the two boards now seem to have a much better understanding of each other than they did when the Republicans first took control – a time when relations between the two boards could be considered icy at best.
“I think we have gotten into a better working relationship with the schools,” Branson said this week.
He also said that, of course, he still has his concerns at times as to how the school system spends the money the county gives it. He said he’d still like to see school system administrative jobs cut “50 percent” and see that money be spent instead in ways that directly affect the classroom.
“I certainly don’t agree with everything the schools have done,” the chairman said.
Branson added that school officials are no longer asking for the moon and the stars as they did years ago.
“They have been somewhat more reasonable in past years,” the chairman said of recent school funding requests.
A few years ago, the schools asked for so much county money that Republican Commissioner Hank Henning said publicly it made it very easy on the commissioners: It was such a wild pie in the sky request, Henning said, that the school board essentially just removed themselves from the discussion that year.
In June, Republican Commissioner Justin Conrad led an effort to get the schools $10 million in new funding for special capital projects related to school security using a method known as “two-thirds bonds,” a special type of government borrowing that doesn’t have to be approved by the public. Conrad said that school officials he’d talked to are “extremely excited about the money from the two-thirds bonds,” and he said that, given the increases in school funding by the Republicans, it’s hard to see why they get so much heat.
“At what point are we not funding the schools?” Conrad said.
Guilford County Board of Education Member Wes Cashwell said Conrad’s move, which was approved unanimously by the Board of Commissioners, was greatly appreciated, as are the recent bumps in funding for school operations.
“I think the proposal by Justin Conrad was very innovative and certainly it’s going to go a long way toward keeping our schools safe and secure,” Cashwell said.
He added that, though the school system has major needs, he’s one school board member who understands that the county has a lot of pressing needs as well, so each year he’s grateful for what the schools do get.
“We’ll take it and say thank you, and spend it wisely,” Cashwell said.
Republican Commissioner Jeff Phillips said he hopes the reality of school funding, ever since the Republicans took control, will start to settle into people’s mindsets. He said he does agree that the Republican commissioners aren’t always “cast in the best light” on the issue. He said he did think it was “a misnomer” to label the current Board of Commissioners as a board that doesn’t focus enough on schools.
“We have made schools a priority,” Phillips said.
He said the improving economy has helped and he said it’s a fair point for Democrats to point out that the economy was in a bad place in the years when the Democrats were holding school funding steady.
Earlier this century, prior to 2008 when the economy was doing well, the Democrat led board did give some very solid funding increases to the schools.
Phillips said it’s certainly a challenge every year to give the schools what they need when so many other county services require those dollars as well.
“We’re doing our very best to move the needle,” Phillips said.
He pointed out that increased school funding has come while the board also lowered taxes and paid down the county’s debt.