The Guilford County Board of Commissioners’ Thursday, June 7 meeting at times looked more like an old-time church revival than a commissioners meeting.
The commissioners meeting room on the second-floor of the Old Guilford County Court House was jam packed with people who jumped to their feet cheering whenever speakers gave an impassioned plea – not one about eternal salvation but instead about the need for the Board of Commissioners to fully fund the Guilford County school system’s request in the 2018-2019 county budget.
The Guilford County commissioners are in the heat of the budget process right now and plan to adopt a final budget at the board’s Thursday, June 21 meeting. As part of the budget process each year, the board holds an early June public hearing to get input from citizens and, this year more than ever, it was overwhelmingly schools supporters who had a lot of advice for the board.
At the June 7 public hearing, the meeting room was a sea of red because that was the color that school advocates had chosen to display their unity in support of education, just as education advocates had worn in Raleigh when they tried to send a message to state legislatures about the need for more school funding.
Teachers, parents and students spoke, at times passionately, on the need in the coming fiscal year for more county money to fund school building repairs, raises for teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers, new textbooks, more school nurses, additional teacher supplies, added security, as well as funds for addressing other school system needs.
One of the most passionate speakers of the night was Sandra Isley, the parent of a child at Erwin Montessori. Erwin was one of three county schools damaged by a tornado in April, and Isley said that was a message from God that students need better, stronger and more fully equipped buildings.
Isley said she was supposed to be at another meeting that night but the commissioners meeting was so important she felt compelled to come and speak. She said the state had let the schools down when it came to funding but the county needed to come through. She said the state hadn’t even delivered promised funds from the NC Education Lottery.
“I am so disappointed because, when we were promised this lottery [money], we were promised so much and we have failed to see those results,” she told the board. “We wondered where the money was going as we looked around at the atrocities that our children were facing in schools, and we find out from the event of a tornado where that money was being spent. And it’s not right. Our children deserve the same kind of building that other children have. It’s like we’re being handed old school books from segregated times and we’re told to do the best we can. Our children deserve more. We love our children like everybody else.”
Isley told the board she was disappointed that it took a tornado to reveal what was going on, and she added it was outrageous that teachers have to use their own money to fund some school activities.
One part of her speech in particular got many in the room on their feet clapping.
“Until our children see equality, we need to do more than pray – we need to be more Godlike. The word of God says, what you have done to the least of them you have done unto me. And these students have been wronged. Those schools were out of date long before that tornado hit.”
She said the tornado strikes that hit three schools earlier this year were God’s way of forcing the community to build newer and better schools.
In another emotional moment at the public hearing, a little girl whose school had been destroyed by a tornado spoke about her hopes someone will find the money to fix her school and make it bigger and better.
Other speakers were less dramatic but no less adamant about the county’s needs to give much more money to the school system than County Manager Marty Lawing is recommending. The public hearing was held to discuss any aspect of the budget that citizens wanted to talk about and, for the vast majority of the 32 speakers who took to the podium, the school system was their topic of choice.
At times while speakers advocated for school issues, the crowd got very loud and at one point Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson asked everyone to refrain from applause or exclamations so that things could move swiftly and the speakers could be heard. After that, for the most part, audience members settled for snapping their fingers or waiving their hands silently in the air when they wished to express agreement with a speaker.
Jean Regan, a retired school nurse in Jamestown with 31 years in the school system, said she supported Project ONE – an effort to get a school nurse in every county school. She said the health needs of students today are “vast and complex” and include more cases of asthma, diabetes and other health issues that require close medical attention. Regan said there are also more teen pregnancies and suicides in recent years than in the past and school nurses can help address these problems.
“The nurse is the professional in the school who can assess health situations and help them navigate our complex health care system today,” Regan said.
Other speakers took a hard line and – in varying degrees of threats, some veiled some not so veiled – told the commissioners that if the county didn’t come through with more money for the school system, the commissioners may find themselves off the board.
The biggest advocate the schools have on the Board of Commissioners is Carlvena Foster, a former member of the Guilford County Board of Education. After the public hearing, Foster expressed her agreement with the speakers.
“I do want to openly say that I do support fully funding the Guilford County schools funding request,” Foster said. “I know first-hand how losing teachers affects our schools.”
She said many teachers go to other counties with better pay.
“When people don’t make enough money to make it, then they have to receive county services, so if we’re not paying on the front end, we’re certainly paying on the back end,” Foster said.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips thanked everyone who had come out to speak, especially the teachers. He said every commissioner on the board believes teachers have “one of the most crucial roles in our society today.”
Phillips added that the county had heard the message and would do what it could.
“While we know that wherever we land may not be satisfactory to all who are here representing teachers this evening, we are going to do our very best with what we have to make our students and children our top priority in our budget,” Phillips said. “That’s a promise.”
Based on the percentage of the county budget the commissioners put toward the school system each year, it’s clear that the commissioners already make the schools the county’s top priority. Far and away, the biggest slice of the county pie each year goes to Guilford County Schools. For fiscal 2018-2019, the county manager’s recommended budget proposes to give the county’s school system $201.9 million for school operating costs and $7.5 million for capital needs. The manager’s budget recommendation also includes over $73 million to pay back $457 million plus interest in school bonds that were approved by county voters in May 2008. The county is paying a total of $649 million when both principal and interest are factored in.
Together, school operating money, capital funds and debt repayment for the schools add up to 46 percent of Guilford County’s budget and Guilford County funds the schools in other ways as well through some of its departmental budgets, such as the the Division of Public Health providing school nurses.
Lawing’s budget is an increase of $6 million in operating funds and $2.5 million in capital funds over what the county gave the school system last year. If the board were to “fully fund” the schools’ request, it would mean adding $12 million to the budget Lawing has proposed – which would mean a property tax increase of more than 2 cents unless cuts were made elsewhere to offset increased school spending.
Also, the county is only one of three major sources of revenue for the county school system, which got $393 million in fiscal 2017-2018 from the State of North Carolina and another $44 million from the federal government for a total Guilford County Schools budget of $637 million. That makes the schools budget larger than Guilford County’s budget.
Commissioner Justin Conrad said at the June 7 meeting that it’s important to realize that it’s not a “cut” when the county gives more money to the schools but doesn’t give as much as the schools were asking for.
Conrad said all of the commissioners have children or grandchildren in the school system and he said that school security was of the utmost importance to all of them.
The Republican commissioners hold a 5-4 majority on the nine-member board and at times the Republicans say they feel the debate gets to be too partisan. Several commissioners commented that Wayne Goodwin, chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, was outside the building with school advocates but didn’t speak or even enter the room. One commissioner said he felt as though Goodwin was “orchestrating” the school system complaints so they were directed at Republicans on the board. Goodwin did not respond to a phone call and an email.
Conrad, when asked about Goodwin’s presence, said he was aware he was outside the building and he added that many of the teachers and parents who came to speak had very serious concerns to be addressed and, if there was partisan politics at play, he didn’t appreciate it in that setting.
“If someone is injecting hardcore partisan politics into it, then that’s a shame,” Conrad said. “I’d be saying the same thing if it were Republicans who did something like that.”
Conrad also stressed that Guilford County has been extremely focused on school funding in recent years, and, while it’s true that the board has to make very hard choices each year, it has consistently increased funding for the system.
School advocates weren’t the only ones who cited pressing needs to the commissioners that night. It’s unusual for county department heads to speak at a public hearing – they generally make their case at untelevised work sessions – however, on June 7, Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes spoke from the podium on the pressing need for higher pay for his officers.
Barnes argued the point to Lawing in March; he made the case again to the commissioners in a recent budget work session and he made it yet again on June 7. He said studies had shown – and the Guilford County Human Resources Department agreed – that the sheriff’s officers need higher pay to remain competitive with other law enforcement agencies in the state.
“We’ve been doing pay studies all along,” Barnes told the board. “The only thing we’re doing is kicking the can down the road – and we are running out of road.”
He said his department is third in the state in size, number one in effectiveness and number 10 in pay. He said the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department is used as an example across North Carolina and the nation of effective law enforcement, but it is having trouble attracting and keeping officers.
“Your officers do a fantastic job in everything they do but we can’t continue that unless we get good recruits in,” Barnes said.
The sheriff said Forsyth County recently raised pay for its officers.
Sheriff’s Department Capt. Randy Shepherd, who’s been with the department for 24 years, told the commissioners he’s seen the pay issue cost the county a lot of effective officers over the years.
“What our pay being low has done has lost us a lot of good talent,” Shepherd said.
He said many former Guilford County officers went to other agencies – or into the private sector where they could make more money and not get cursed at or shot at while performing their job.
“When I came 24 years ago, people came and they stayed, and they retired with the agency,” he said. “We’re seeing that change today.”
Barnes said after the public hearing that, if he’d wanted to, he could have had as many advocates at the meeting for his cause as the schools did.
“I could have filled that room but I chose not to,” Barnes said.
One of the amazing things about the public hearing is that virtually no one spoke for funding for arts groups, economic development organizations or for groups that help the needy. It may be that they already feel confident their cause will be funded or they may feel as though speaking at the public hearing doesn’t sway the commissioners one way or another. Whatever the reason, usually the June public hearing on the budget is a parade of one community group after another, but this year only one speaker, Rebecca Clark, the executive director of the Piedmont Triad Film Commission spoke for a nonprofit group.
She got her application for county funding in late this year due to two deaths on her board and an oversight. That meant funding for the Film Commission wasn’t included in the manager’s budget. She asked the board to consider funding the Film Commission $25,000 if they “would be so kind.”
She said she was very embarrassed about missing the application date but she explained the benefits of funding and the various ways in which that county contribution helps bring economic activity to the area.
Commissioner Kay Cashion made a motion that the board consider including $25,000 for the Film Commission in the budget and Commissioner Alan Perdue then moved that the board consider $25,000 in funding for the Southwest Renewal Foundation of High Point, an organization attempting to revitalize parts of that city.
Those two motions got unanimous approval but that doesn’t assure either group will get any county money in the upcoming budget. It does mean they will be considered.