Where our education dollars go
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on June 19, 2005 2:01 AM
This is not your parents' reading, writing and arithmetic.
Today's schools deal with miles of paperwork and requirements that come with three-ring binders full of directives and deadlines, but not enough money to provide the materials, staff and facilities to meet them without local assistance.
Dollars that are earmarked for education get stretched and squeezed until the markings are practically rubbed off every penny used.
But some constants remain: the public cries out for qualified teachers and services to prepare students for their futures.
Wayne County's school officials wage war against these issues daily, and so, too, in turn, do the people who provide the local funds to the district's budget. Every year, come budget time, the school board holds out its hand to the commissioners, asking for more money. Then, the debate begins over who needs what, how much and where the extra money is going to come from.
And that operating budget doesn't include facilities. In recent years, residential patterns across the county have shifted dramatically. Schools in the northern part of the county are bursting at the seams, while some argue that schools in Goldsboro have a surplus of space.
The Board of Education has supported construction of new schools, but there is still a long list of facilities in need of renovation and repair.
The bottom line, education officials say, is that money, mandates and maintenance are the keys to the budget debate.
The school system has three sources of income. Seventy-two percent of the district's annual budget comes from the state; 16 percent from local sources; and 10 percent from federal. An additional 2 percent comes from the state to be used for capital projects.
This year, the district is asking commissioners for $1.2 million, an increase of 7.5 percent, to maintain services as well as fund a supplement for teachers. The supplement portion is $840,000.
Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for finance, said a more realistic figure for the school system would be $1.4 million, but the decision was made to pull funding from other sources as a show of good faith to the commissioners.
The teacher supplement is more than a bonus, she said. It is necessary to recruit and retain teachers. Teacher supplements can add an additional $4,000 and $10,000 a year to a teacher's salary. That makes a difference when good teachers are choosing where to work.
"We're competing with Johnston County, which has a supplement of 7 percent or greater and Wake County, which is closer to 10 percent," she said.
The school system must also keep a certain amount in reserve, called its "fund balance," she said. The local governing commission requires a minimum of 8 percent of the budget, $2.2 million in Wayne County, be set aside.
"Say we have a hurricane and lose the roof on a school," Mrs. Barwick said. "We've got to put it on now. We'd have to have the funds to draw to take care of the needs.
"Does a normal person save and save and then all of a sudden build a new house and the utility bill triples? You have to have some money in reserve in savings for such emergencies."
Federal and state money comes with strings attached and not with a blank check.
"Services are mandated but not necessarily funded," she said. "The law requires us to give (students) a complete education but the funding does not follow that."
The state's per pupil expenditure, for example, is determined by a formula based on variables such as funding sources and enrollment.
For 2003-04, the state average per pupil expenditure was $6,990; in Wayne County for that period, it was $6,061. Wayne County is ranked 101 out of 117 school systems, Mrs. Barwick said.
Because student needs are changing, and with them the array of services required, more is demanded from the state to meet individual needs, Mrs. Barwick said.
"This isn't the same old school," she said. "It's a more personalized education, and it costs more to provide it."
Probably the biggest discrepancy is in the area of exceptional children. It incorporates a range of situations, from the developmentally delayed to those with attention deficit disorder.
For exceptional children, the state provides up to 12 percent, Mrs. Barwick said. It is up to each local district to provide the balance.
Dr. Sandra McCullen, associate superintendent for instruction, says she is always uncertain how much of her office and desk area she should tidy up before visitors arrive. It usually boils down to whether she wants to present an accurate picture of education.
"We do a lot of paper pushing," she said, pointing to bookcases lined with thick notebooks that outline policies and requirements handed down regularly from the state to local schools.
First and foremost, a school system must have enough teachers to teach all the curriculum programs it is required to offer within the school day. That leads to the need for staff development for the 2,000-plus employees in the system, Dr. McCullen said.
And with all the mandated curriculum requirements, increased testing demands and personalized student education plans, there is more to do with a sometimes overburdened faculty.
The newest addition is an emphasis on "academic rigor" for high school students, which mandates schools provide more advanced classes, as well as offering more challenging programs for students in technical or vocational courses of study. All that planning and studying, and then implimenting the changes, costs money.
And then there are the textbooks, which must be updated every five years and can cost as much as $135 each, some of which is locally funded.
In addition to traditional subjects, schools are also being asked to provide breakfast, character education and most recently, obesity training and prevention, Dr. McCullen said. Those programs have budget requirements, too.
Some schools are also offering a take-home computer program or an after-school learning lab for students without access to technology at home so they will be able to keep pace with their classmates.
Special services also have to be provided, and funded, for those students who need extra help. Summer classes, personalized education plans and additional services for special circumstances, add additional expense.
Fourteen percent of the 19,000 student population in Wayne County Public Schools have special needs, Dr. McCullen said, as compared to the state average of 12 percent.
"I have reviewed 843 folders myself from all the schools so far this summer," she said.
With the federal law, "No Child Left Behind," being gradually implemented across the country, more will be required of educators.
"It not only applies to testing results," Dr. McCullen said. "It applies to having highly qualified teachers, staff development that we must provide based on the funding that they give us, providing programs that they give us, such as ESL (English as a second language) and programs for the homeless, the two biggest pieces that we're working on now."
Where will students get all this education, if the buildings are not maintained or renovated sufficiently?
It is Sprunt Hill's job to keep the schools running. As assistant superintendent of auxiliary services, he takes his lead from the Board of Education, which he says is "very committed to the comfort of the kids."
"Our board has done everything we felt like the county commissioners have asked us to do," he said. "We have sent many plans over. They have been reviewed and sent back."
There is still an approved $82 million facilities plan waiting to be turned into brick and mortar, he said. The latest twist with that was a request from commissioners that upgrades be made, Hill said.
"We are in the process of reviewing that system to make sure there's no corrections that are needed."
A facilities assessment study was first done in 1999, Hill said. More recently, the board approved updates to the study, which is expected to be received in the next week or so. Hill said the board will then discuss the findings and how they stack up against the latest facilities plan.
"It wouldn't surprise us to see that the numbers that were in the previous facilities plan are below what they'll be now after the facility study because of the construction costs (going up)," he said.
Regardless of the outcome, even a refreshed list of construction needs will not change the fact that schools across the county are getting older and harder to repair.
Goldsboro High School, the oldest in the county, was built in 1927, Hill said. Renovations and construction projects have been completed there in 1937, 1950, 1957, 1963, 1965, 1968, 1969, 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1986.
Norwayne Middle School, built in 1958, has also had more than its share of problems and is considered a priority on the school board's list.
"Whether it's torn down or rebuilt or we do renovations, our board is well aware of the age of this school, that it's built in a hole," Hill said. "We said it should be demolished, but the money issue is again a concern."
Brogden Primary School is also on the board's to-do list, with plans to build a cafetorium.
Hill said his department began investigating a deferred maintenance program about a year ago to handle some of the schools' pressing needs. The board recently agreed to a performance contract, which is now subject to final review and approval by the board's attorney and the state Local Government Commission.
Under the financing agreement, Hill said, approximately $2.8 million worth of work would be done in six county schools -- North Drive and School Street elementary schools, and Eastern Wayne, Spring Creek, Goldsboro and Southern Wayne high schools. The government loan would cover changing fixtures, boilers and chillers, and offer guaranteed savings, Hill said.
"The contract is supposed to show that over a period of time, the cost of equipment and financing costs are all guaranteed to come back to us in the way of energy savings," he said.
Even if the facilities plan were to be handed back tomorrow, Hill said the deferred maintenance project still must be done.
"My job is, no matter where a child gets in a classroom, to provide a safe and secure environment conducive to learning," he said. " I think the job of this office is not to look at where the schools are being built, but that wherever they are, we make them the best they can be."
While he can't make an older school new, Hill said he constantly looks for ways to make them the best they can possibly be at any age.
"We need to take a hard look at some of our oldest buildings to make an educated discussion about renovating or demolishing," he said. "We'd love to replace the older buildings, but dollars drive the process."
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