04/26/06 — School board wants to talk budget

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School board wants to talk budget

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 26, 2006 1:52 PM

The Wayne County Board of Education has approved a preliminary budget, but board members are doubtful it will be approved by county commissioners unless the two groups sit down together to discuss the school system's needs.

During a three-hour work session Tuesday, the school board reviewed budget requests from principals at the county's 31 schools as well as expenditures required by the state and federal governments.

But the debate suggested that the amount of money requested from commissioners will not matter unless all the information can be shared.

"They should be here, hearing this," board member Pete Gurley said.

"What would be wrong with asking for a joint meeting and not waiting for Evergreen?" asked board member Thelma Smith. "I hate to send this anywhere because they're not going to be able to interpret it."

Evergreen Solutions is a consulting firm hired by the county commissioners to independently evaluate the county's school facility needs. Both the school board and the commissioners have been waiting for the results of the Evergreen study.

"I think we need to explain it to them," Mrs. Smith said. "They need to be around the table so if they have a question about anything ... some of these people don't have a clue of what we have suffered in the past."

"Unless somebody is there when we present it, to explain it as the commissioners read it, (to say) 'that's exactly what we spent this year.' They need to know that and they need to know that this is exactly what it will take for next year," board member Lehman Smith said.

Dr. Steven Taylor, the superintendent of schools, said a number of items in the proposed 2006-07 budget are the result of state cuts of three years ago from which the school system has still not recovered. Taylor also said that county funding has fallen behind the growing needs of the schools. For example, soon after the current school year began Gov. Mike Easley ordered a salary increase for teachers that the county has to pay for.

And other costs keep rising, Taylor said. School officials are projecting a $250,000 increase in the cost of gasoline for buses. Electricity is expected to cost $400,000 more next year than this year.

The school system is also receiving less money for military students and has lost an estimated $1.73 million since 1999 in "low wealth" funding intended for poorer school districts.

Calling this a critical year for Wayne County Public Schools, Taylor said an increase in local funding is imperative.

"I think we're at the point now where a 5 percent increase is no longer sufficient," he said. "We need 7 percent just to maintain what we have in place right now. Five percent is what we have been looking at in the past. Just to pay for the supplement and everything else we have in the budget, it will take that 7 percent.

"If we don't get that kind of increase, we certainly can't operate efficiently."

Taylor noted that the fund balance is as low as it has ever been. Although auditors for the school system indicated several months ago that at least three months' worth of expense money should be kept on hand at all times, Taylor said the board currently has only about half that amount.

The request to increase the fund balance will be included in the schools' proposal for commissioners, he said.

The results of the Evergreen study are expected to have a big impact on both the school board's proposal and the commissioners' response.

Board member Rick Pridgen asked whether a joint meeting with the commissioners would be in order once the Evergreen report comes in, and was told that it would.

The schools' proposed budget has to be made final by May 15. Pending approval at Monday night's school board meeting, it will be forwarded to the commissioners.

School board member George Moye said he is comfortable submitting "whatever we need to do in keeping with the best interest of the children of Wayne County. If we don't request the things that we need, then we're not doing our jobs."

School board chairman John Grantham agreed that the budget should be sent over in its entirety.

"We know we're not going to get all this money. Once we get a budget number we're obviously going to get some cuts, or should we make some cuts now?" he asked.

Board member Shirley Sims recalled past discussions with the commissioners over money. She said that at times the school board has submitted a reduced request to commissioners, only to learn that the commissioners want to see a list of all the school needs.

"I say, send everything that we want," she said.

Taylor said that as soon as the budget is officially approved by the school board, he will request a meeting to present it to commissioners.