03/14/07 — Commission, school board meet to talk about funding plan

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Commission, school board meet to talk about funding plan

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 14, 2007 1:53 PM

KENANSVILLE -- One of Duplin County Board of Commissioners Chairman David Fussell's favorite props these days is a bag full of 79 pennies that he carries in his briefcase.

And for the past month or so, whenever budget questions have arisen, he has pulled out that bag to illustrate the 79-cent tax rate the commissioners are expected to approve before July 1 and how those pennies -- each representing about $288,000 -- are divided up.

He opened the bag again on Monday as the commissioners met with the county Board of Education to discuss how to improve relations between the two entities and how to better fund the school system's needs.

"I think we all on the board of commissioners would like to give you more pennies," he told the school board. "But we have a limited number."

And while the only things they're required to spend money on are facilities, supplies and insurance, the commissioners all said they wanted to work with the school board to go beyond those requirements and spend those limited dollars in the best way possible.

"We can build buildings, but the buildings will not talk and since the buildings don't talk, we need somebody to tell us what's going on inside that building," commissioner Zettie Williams said.

Some school board members, however, expressed concerns about what they feel is the commissioners' tendency to try to micromanage the school system.

"We have nothing to hide, but it feels like you want to know all these details and we want to know why the board of commissioners needs all these details to fund what the board of education has come together and decided with all the expertise available to us, that these are the facilities we need and the things we need to educate the children of Duplin County," school board chairman Emily Manning said. "We as a board count pennies and we look at our dollars very carefully trying to determine where in our system they can be spent where they'll do the greatest good."

But, commissioner L.S. Guy said, all the commission wants is to be made aware of what's going on and how county funds are spent.

"I'm going to stay out of your business, but it is important when we talk about complementing each other, we need to be on the same page," he said. "The people have asked us some hard questions about facility needs and program needs and we need to be appearing to be together when we respond."

The next issue to come before both boards requiring a unified front will likely be the facilities plan.

Last Tuesday, the board of education found out that the cost of its current -- and as of yet, not implemented -- plan has increased from $43.2 million in December 2005 to $60.9 million today.

Paying that cost will largely be the responsibility of the county commissioners. So far, they have voiced their support for a statewide bond referendum and a half-cent local sales tax option to pay for such capital endeavors.

On Monday, the two sides were scheduled to begin discussing how they might begin tackling those projects.

Several school board members, though, requested more time to study and update the current plan.

"I think we need to look at it some more," new school board member Chuck Farrior said. "The main problem I have with it is that every school is not touched, and I don't think you can identify a school in our county that does not have some facility needs."

And that, Guy said, is fine -- as long as they then communicate to the commissioners what their plans are, how they want to proceed and where the money might come from.

"It's not something you can do by yourselves and it's not something we can do by ourselves," he said. "We're talking about a gigantic debt whatever we do."

And as the two boards agreed to sit down together on a quarterly basis and discuss financial issues, test scores, impact of non-English speakers, Fussell agreed.

"We feel like we are equal boards elected by the people. I'm hopeful we'll be able to get those pennies into the right piles," he said.