In spring, young men’s fancy may turn to love, but the fancy of Guilford County Schools officials turns to something else entirely: How much money the Guilford County Board of Commissioners is going to give the county’s school system in the upcoming county budget.
That annual dance between county and school officials has officially begun. Last week, the Guilford County Board of Education adopted a proposed 2017-2018 school system budget that includes a request to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners for $20.2 million more in school funding than the county gave the schools last year. The school system’s request calls for $10.2 million more for operating expenses and $10 million more for capital outlay – that is, for building maintenance and repair.
The $10.2 million increase for operations requested in local support would bring the funding from the Board of County Commissioners for the schools’ operating budget to approximately $198.6 million.
On Thursday, May 19, Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing will present his 2017-2018 budget proposal to the Board of Commissioners and will recommend how much the county should hand over to the schools for the coming fiscal year. In the weeks following that presentation, the county commissioners will study the manager’s proposal and the schools’ request and then haggle over the appropriate amount to fund the schools.
According to school officials, $2 million of this year’s request is due to a new “unfunded mandate” from the state legislators that calls for a reduction in class sizes. That will mean more teachers and more classroom space – and greater costs. That legislation was revamped earlier this year to help lessen the cost burden on schools in the coming fiscal year, but Guilford County Schools officials say it will still have a budgetary impact in fiscal 2017-2018.
Chairman of the Board of Education Alan Duncan said this week that the new state legislation is just one of the things driving up costs for the schools. He said it’s vitally important that Guilford County Schools gets adequate local funding this year since the schools are already making cuts – such as teaching assistant (TA) positions – that it’s been trying hard to avoid.
“The bottom line is that this is really serious stuff,” Duncan said of the system’s tight finances.
He said that sufficient funding from the county would translate into very real and important benefits for area school children.
Duncan said that, at this time of year, every year there’s a lot of media attention devoted to the discussions between school officials and county commissioners but, he said, he should point out that much of the shortfall is because the State of North Carolina doesn’t adequately fund the schools.
“My biggest concern is the state,” Duncan said, “which is not funding even close to our needs and has diverted dollars to other programs.”
“We also get funding from the federal government, which we have little influence over,” he said.
He said he realizes that the lack of adequate funding from state and federal funding puts a big burden on the county when it comes to school funding.
Generally, about 60 percent of the county school system’s budget comes from the state, with roughly 7 percent from the federal government. The rest comes from the county, fees, grants and other sources. School officials say this year’s request to the county commissioners is based on estimates of state and federal funding. The school system, with a budget of about $700 million, has a larger budget than Guilford County, which has a budget that usually totals around $600 million.
On the capital side of the request this year, Duncan said, the fact that Guilford County Schools received $457 million in bond money that voters approved in 2008 doesn’t mitigate the need for the additional capital funds in the county budget in 2017.
“That was nine years ago,” he said of the large successful school bond referendum.
Duncan said many new needs have arisen. “New assessments are that there are at least $800 million in capital needs,” Duncan said.
Guilford County has now sold all of the bonds from the 2008 referendum.
According Guilford County Cash and Debt Manager Clay Hicks, a few weeks ago the county sold the final $130 million in school bonds remaining from that bond referendum. Guilford County used some of those proceeds to pay off a line of credit that had been used for school projects and there’s now $55.3 million unspent that the county is holding for the schools.
Duncan said the county commissioners kept local school funding flat for years after the 2008 financial collapse and he said that put a big strain on school finances.
He said current shortfalls have meant a cut in positions but, he added, thankfully it won’t mean firing active employees this year since the cut positions are currently unfilled. That could change in the future.
“We’re trying to avoid a reduction in force,” the school board chairman said. “The TA’s are a valuable and important, particularly in the lower grades,”
He said a reorganization of central staff saved $750,000 in the school budget and, though he hears critics argue the schools are administratively top-heavy, he said that’s simply not the case.
“It’s a very, very lean administration,” Duncan said.
He said the idea that the system is bloated is “a mantra” that just keeps getting repeated.
Democratic Commissioner Skip Alston said he hears the school systems needs loud and clear this year.
“I tend to support the school board’s request,” Alston said. “They are the elected officials and, until I hear other arguments why it shouldn’t be granted, I tend to support them.”
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips, a Republican, said the commissioners will give the school board’s request a fair hearing and Guilford County will certainly do what it can to support education. That said, he sounds as though finding $20 million in the budget for the schools is extremely unlikely at this point.
“It would be a real challenge to satisfy the full request given the constraints we have,” Phillips said.
The chairman also said there’s not going to be any added county revenue from a property tax hike in the 2017-2018 budget.
“There will not be a tax increase this year,” Phillips said. “You can quote me on that.”
The Republican-majority Board of Commissioners has shown a commitment to cutting property taxes since the Republicans took power in 2012, and they have done so every year except one, when they left the tax rate the same.
Though those tax cuts haven’t been as large as some property owners would like, when the Democrats were in control of the board from 1998 until 2012, the county saw tax increases of 2 cents, 3 cents and even more on a regular basis. When county commissioners raise taxes like that, it’s a lot easier to come up with money to meet the many requests the county receives. But even in those years it was extremely rare for the schools to receive all the money they asked for from the Guilford County commissioners.
Phillips said he respects the needs of the schools; however, he added, Guilford County has a great many obligations and financial costs that have to be addressed in the coming budget. He said the board will consider the request within that context.
“We’ll assess the information as best we can,” Phillips said.
He said the cost of new county social services workers and increasing foster care program demands are just a couple of the challenges the county has seen, and capital needs – such as the need for a new animal shelter and a new Emergency Services maintenance center – are also weighing heavy.
“We’ve got to be sensitive to all our needs,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to live within our means. It’s never easy.”
Phillips addressed education funding in his State of the County address delivered earlier this month. In that speech, he pointed out that public education is already the “top priority” for the county.
In a key part of that speech, Phillips pointed out that the county had increased funding for both school operations and for school facilities upkeep in each of the past four years and, he added, he anticipates that will be true this year as well.
Phillips said, “When combined with debt service obligations, specific to [Guilford County Schools], the county’s total public schools appropriation is nearly $262 million, or approximately 44 percent of the county budget.”
Lawing’s recommendation will no doubt call for an increase in school funding – but not an increase of the size school officials want to see. Like Phillips, Lawing points out that the county currently has a lot of pressing needs.
“We’ll look at their request with regard to the specifics of the county budget,” Lawing said.
The county manager said that, when making his recommendation on school spending, he’s guided by a formula that takes into account growth in the tax base and increases in school enrollment.
Lawing said the county’s tax base has been growing but not at the rate county officials would like to see. Counties in the state with rapidly increasing tax bases have less trouble finding more money for school systems and other needs because that new growth means more revenue with the same tax rate. However, Guilford County hasn’t been seeing the same kind of growth as counties like Wake County have.
“There’s not a lot to work with,” Lawing said of the limited increased revenue from tax base growth.
Commissioners Hank Henning and Alan Branson have been critical at times of the way the county’s schools have allocated space and resources. They have argued that some major savings could be achieved by redrawing school district lines in an effort to use empty space in some schools and relieve overcrowding in others.
Duncan said school officials understand those concerns. He said that changes in the economy and in predicted county growth patterns have sometimes resulted in miscalculations. He said, for instance, the school system added a school in the Reedy Fork about 10 years ago in anticipation that new needs in that area were going to be “massive” due to population growth that was taking place before the financial collapse in 2008.
Duncan said the recession that followed the economic collapse slashed that growth, causing that school to be underattended.
“Things slowed dramatically,” Duncan said of the Reedy Fork area.
He said that school was the result of “reasonable planning” and the schools even saved money by getting a developer to contribute the land used. He said the school in that area will fill up eventually.
Duncan said that drawing new school district lines an ongoing discussion among school officials, but he added that there were a lot of considerations at play.
“It’s a valid point, but you need community buy-in,” he said of redrawing lines. “There’s a huge loyalty to schools. Any time we move the lines, there’s a large hue and cry. People are very emotionally tied to these schools.”
School system leaders state that the new budget preserves arts, athletics and physical education programs, while cutting 51 TA positions and reorganizing the central office. It also adds an annual $45 participation fee for athletes who can afford to pay it and the budget closes High School Ahead – a school that combines sixth, seventh and eighth grades into a two-year program, allowing students who are one year behind a chance to catch up with their class.
In a press release, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras stated: “We are doing what we can to keep positions and services in our schools, while preserving what I believe are some of the finest arts, music and PE programs in the country.
“We’ve done our part by making the tough decisions, and now we need our funding bodies to do their part. Continuing to do more with less would be a disservice to our students and community.”
She also stated of the request, “It sounds like a lot, but GCS is the 47th largest district in the country, and we do require significant resources.”
Currently, county and school officials are putting together a joint committee to address school space needs, school lines and related matters that feed into increasing education costs.
The county commissioners are expected to vote on the Guilford County budget in June.
School officials will continue to make adjustments as budget decisions are finalized on the local, state and federal levels.