by Josh Lanier
The current version of Union County’s 2012 budget does not include any extra funding for the county’s cash-poor school system. But school board members said this week they are planning to ask county leaders for more money to help cover at least some of the nearly $10 million budget gap they are facing next school year.
Union County currently has budgeted a $129 million appropriation for the school system, $49.5 million of which will be used to cover the debt service on recent school constructions and capital projects, County Manager Cindy Coto said in an email.
Board set to interview superintendent candidates
The Union County School Board will interview the final five candidates for school superintendent next week.
The names of the candidates have not been released.
The closed-session interviews will be held Monday and Tuesday, April 16 and 17, at the Omni Charlotte Hotel, 132 E. Trade St., in Charlotte.
Current Superintendent Ed Davis will step down from his position at the end of the school year in June. School board members said they hoped to have Davis’s replacement chosen before he leaves.
That leaves the school system with $79.3 million to add to its operating budget. That’s the same operating budget the system has received from the county for the past several years.
Couple that with millions in cutbacks from a federal teaching program, state funding and an ever growing student population and the system is left with a “very bleak” outlook, Superintendent Ed Davis said at last week’s school board meeting. Board members voted at that meeting to cut all of the county’s 350 teacher assistants and about 53 teaching positions to cover those losses.
The school board’s finance committee is currently going over the system’s budget and is expected to ask for a small increase in county funding, school board members said. It is unclear, however, how much the board will ask for and how that money would be spent. Officials are expected to discuss the additional funding increase at the May 1 meeting.
“We have to do something,” school board member John Collins said. “We (Union County’s schools) are a calling card of this community. People constantly are moving to this area for our schools. We can’t let the biggest draw for Union County languish.”
What the county’s schools have been able to accomplish with flat or reduced budgets is a point of pride for many. The system of more than 40,000 students generally performs well above state averages in end of grade testing, one of the state’s biggest benchmarks for success.
The system also boasted 21 out of 53 schools reaching the coveted “Honor Schools of Excellence” status, meaning more than 90 percent of those students were at or above grade level. All the while falling behind the state average in per-pupil funding in a state near the bottom in the country for how much it spends annually, on average, to teach each student. And that number will shrink if more students rush into the system and funding remains the same.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re being punished for doing well,” Collins said. “And we’ve been good stewards of the money, too.”
Collins added he sometimes feels like the board is a child asking its parents for a bigger allowance when it comes to going to the county for more funds.
“You can’t ask for the moon,” he said. “… We have to be realistic.”
It seems unlikely the school board will ask the county to make up the entire $10 million in budget cuts from the state and federal governments, although that is what many parents and teachers are hoping the county will do.
The state Department of Public Instruction’s Chief Financial Officer Philip Price couldn’t speak in specifics because he was unfamiliar with Union County’s situation, but said generally speaking there aren’t any state statutes that would keep a county from making up the difference.
The county received a $54 million payout earlier this year when it leased out a Monroe hospital to Carolinas Healthcare System, and many education advocates want the additional funds culled from that windfall. But the county has a number of big-ticket items like adding additional space to the jail looming on the horizon.
County Commissioner Tracy Kuehler said she wants to hear from the school board about funding because she’s interested to have the discussion with her board.
“The board of education needs to come to the county to ask for more money,” she said. “I’ve heard people saying they’re waiting to find out what we’ll say yes to. It’s not their job to worry about what we’ll say yes to, it’s their job to tell us what they need. We can start the conversation there.”
If the county and school board can’t come to an agreement on funding, the boards could take the matter to mediation like they did in 2007. A mediator would decide if the schools were appropriately being funded.
The school board accepted flat funding in recent years, Kuehler said, with a promise the schools would get bigger budgets when the economy turned around. Earlier this year county commissioners proposed a half-cent tax cut, which for a $400,000 home would net about $20 in savings.
“If we can afford a tax cut … and we’ve got a few extra million sitting around that could help out for a few years until the state gets it act together then why not?” Kuehler said. “Teaching our children is the most important job we have. We should be doing all we can to help out.”