04/29/05 — County, board meet to talk money

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County, board meet to talk money

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on April 29, 2005 1:50 PM

Wayne County commissioners heard from county school officials Thursday about how schools are funded, about their facility needs and about programs the schools are ordered by the state to provide.

But after a five-hour meeting Thursday, commissioners were still in the dark about how much money the schools need for building improvements.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor told commissioners that consultants are in the process of updating a school facilities report and that it is expected to be completed within a few weeks. The chairman of the county Board of Education, Lehman Smith, said school board doesn't want to ask commissioners for a specific amount of money until the report is finished.

County Manager Lee Smith said the county is facing a tough budget year and needs to know how much the schools will want as soon as possible.

"We're asking that you get us your needs for operation, as quickly as you can," Smith said.

He said the commissioners have been able to keep the county's general fund at the same level for the past three years, but that they would have to increase the fund balance if the county decides to borrow money to build new school buildings.

"So we're asking you, when you see what your increase is going to be, see what you can take from your fund balance, while staying safe," Smith said.

Nan Barwick, the schools' assistant superintendent for finance, said it is difficult for school officials to plan a budget far in advance because 72 percent of funding comes from the state government.

And, she explained, many times it could be October or November before the state's final budget decision is made.

"We have to go in with a lot of missing pieces," Ms. Barwick said.

State funding for county schools is split into three portions, which include a dollar allotment, a position allotment and an allotment based on months of employment.

But even the funds earmarked for the dollar allotment category are not distributed to the school system by the state treasurer's office, Ms. Barwick said.

"We can't bank this money," she said. "We draw it down in an account when it's needed."

Sixty-one percent of the state money goes for teachers' salaries, she noted.

Money received from the state for mandated programs often falls short of the amount needed, she said. For example, she said, the state funded the exceptional children program at a 12.5 percent level, but Wayne County needed 14.5 percent to fully fund that program.

"So then we have to look at getting additional funding," Ms. Barwick said. "And also with state allotments, it's a use it or lose it deal. We have to make sure the money is expended by June 30."

She estimated that the school had an available fund balance of about $2.5 million.

Taylor and Lehman Smith told commissioners that should a tax increase be required, the schools should not be blamed. They pointed to the county's annual Medicaid costs as the culprit. In North Carolina, counties are required to pay part of the cost of providing Medicaid services. Most states do not involve local governments in the paying for Medicaid. This year, Wayne's portion of Medicaid cost local taxpayers $7 million.

Lehman Smith reminded commissioners that the state often puts additional demands on local school systems without providing the money to pay for them. Ordering smaller class sizes is an example, he said. Ten years ago, school planners were not aware that new schools would have to have more classrooms in order to meet that mandate, he said.

Next week, the commissioners and school board members will spend three days visiting the 31 schools around the county in order to give commissioners a better idea of each school's building needs.