07/02/06 — Duplin budget creates uncertainty for teachers

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Duplin budget creates uncertainty for teachers

By Turner Walston
Published in News on July 2, 2006 2:09 AM

KENANSVILLE -- Budget constraints may force some Duplin County educators to look for work outside the county, school officials said. Duplin Schools passed an interim budget, mindful that they would not have final numbers by the beginning of the fiscal year.

"When we get that information, I'll have to sit down and recalculate all of our salary and benefit increases for our budget," interim finance officer Dr. Bob Tart said. "We already know that our total revenue is not going to coverall of the budget requests made for fiscal year 2007."

The school district initially requested more than $10 million from the county for current expenses. They were allocated nearly $6.6 million, $500,000 more than last year's total.

"We felt it was important that we do that because those requests represent our school needs," Duplin Superintendent Dr. Wiley Doby said of the $10 million request. "It's not a Cadillac. It's not a Taj Mahal. It's our actual needs."

The school board also requested salaries for 25 locally-paid teachers, but cuts had to be made, Doby added.

"What the state alone allots you is not sufficient," he said. "For planning purposes right now, and the shortfall that we foresee, we're now planning on 12."

Other staff members will feel impact of budget cuts also.

"We've had to notify all of our (teacher assistants) that they may not be re-employed, depending on the availability of funding," Tart said. "It is causing a lot of re-organization and a lot of pain at the school level."

Despite the need for cuts, they don't come easy, Doby said.

"These are all potential cuts that we hate so bad to even have to think about," he said. "Of all the expenses of the school system, personnel is probably 80 percent of that."

The total is even more when you factor in benefits, Tart said, adding other expenses, including utilities, are non-negotiable.

"You can't quit paying your light bill," he said. "To keep the doors to the buildings open, you don't have discretionary billing."

The need for cuts come at a difficult time, while recruitment and retention efforts for educators are ongoing.

"It's a catch-22 situation," Tart said, adding the fallout from personnel would not be as much as was anticipated.

At one time, he projected the county would lose about 45 teachers. Now that number is looking closer to ten or 15, he said.

Tart said he speaks with school employees daily on the situation.

"I have to tell them, 'If I'd been told my position is in question, and I had another job offer, I'd take it,'" he said. "That's not an easy thing for me to tell someone that I'd like to see stay with us," Tart said. "It's almost like telling one of your family members they have to leave the nest for a while."

In making cuts, it's important to treat people the right way, Doby said.

"We want to be fair to our people," he said.

But staff cuts alone won't get the job done.

"The physical needs of our school system are astounding," he said. "Just look at some of the facilities. That's not saying anything negative about our maintenance department or our principals. It's a lack of money. Our buildings need a coat of paint. These are the kind of needs that we are talking about. They are very definite needs."

Most of the construction Duplin schools occurred as a result of federal programs instituted in the 1970s and funds made available by the state through critical school needs funding, state public school building bonds, and capital school building funds, Tart said. Years later -- more than thirty for some schools -- maintenance is a problem.

"I guess you can liken it to being given a brand new car, but you don't have enough money to change the oil in it, replace the tires, and keep it well-maintained," he said.

"It's hard to run the car without sufficient tires," Doby added.

Lottery money isn't coming yet, either. Doby said the state is setting lottery proceeds aside for new school constructions and projects.

"They're putting it into this reserve account in case the projected lottery proceeds, as is my understanding, don't meet their projections," Doby said.

While money doesn't cure all ills, Doby said it helps.

"Money's not everything, but it is certainly extremely important," Doby said. "It's crucial in order for us to provide the best possible education for our students."

Doby said he appreciated the "outstanding support" of school employees, school board members, parents and members of the community who made their voices known to county commissioners during the budget process.

"It has to be a continual effort," he said. "It can't stop now. We've got to continue to push the ball up the court."