08/21/07 — Duplin Commissioners discuss funding, teachers

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Duplin Commissioners discuss funding, teachers

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on August 21, 2007 1:45 PM

On the day when teachers, teacher assistants, principals, assistant principals and superintendents all got together to celebrate the quickly approaching new school year, the Duplin County Commissioners were once again discussing issues of school funding.

This time, they not only finally decided what to do with the extra $750,000 in restricted funding they allocated in this year's budget, but they also entertained the idea of giving another almost $1.1 million for more teachers.

Taking action on the first issue, the board voted unanimously to allow the school system to move the $155,000 that was originally designated for instructional supplies to the utility bill line item.

The reason, school Superintendent Dr. Wiley Doby said, is that the state increased per student funding for instructional supplies by $1.95.

"That should adequately cover the supply needs of our schools," he said.

He also pledged to quickly address any reports of teachers going without supplies.

The $595,000 balance is scheduled to go for maintenance.

Of that, though, the commissioners initially took the liberty -- by a 4-2 vote -- of directing $88,000 solely to James Kenan High School.

Commission Chairman David Fussell and Commissioner L.S. Guy opposed the motion, which was made by Commissioner Cary Turner.

However, Turner later moved to rescind his earlier motion. That passed unanimously.

He was originally seeking to meet a list of specific needs given to him by James Kenan Principal Vicki Booker during a tour of the county's schools last week.

That list included such supplies as teacher desks, lecterns, chairs, storage lockers, bookcases, file cabinets and computer tables.

The concern of those members voting against the original motion was that they were overstepping their bounds.

"I think we stepped in stuff we're going to regret," Fussell said. "This is meddling in a board of education affair."

Additionally, school chief financial officer Carolyn Olivarez explained later that $13,000 worth of the needed equipment had already been ordered and that those needs are considered capital anyway, not maintenance, and therefore cannot be funded with current expense dollars.

In regard to the request for more school teachers, though, the board put off making a decision until it reconvenes on Friday.

That request followed several weeks of discussion about why Duplin schools are short 25 teachers this year -- cuts in state teacher allotments, cuts in several grant programs and no local positions provided by the commissioners.

"Rarely are the position allocations by the state enough to meet a school system's needs," Doby said. "Our class size is bumping right up on the maximum the state says we can't go beyond. We desperately need some new teaching positions."

The problem, Ms. Olivarez explained, is that state funding for teachers comes based on the projected average daily membership for the county as a whole, not by specific schools. It also does not take into account the need for specialized teachers such as special education and literacy coaches.

"The problem with the state allocation formula is that it figures the students will be in neat packages and they aren't," she said.

She explained that even if one student at one school causes a class to go over the state maximum, particularly in grades kindergarten through third, a new teacher must be hired.

Ms. Olivarez also explained that for the state to even consider for increasing teacher funding this year, the county's attendance by the 10th day of school must be at least 100 more students than projected.

Fussell, however, protested that funding teachers is not the county's responsibility.

"The state's primary responsibility is teachers," he said. "We are responsible for buildings and facilities, and until we fulfill our statutory responsibility, I think it would be irresponsible to spend money on things we are not required to do."

Others on the board, though, saw it differently.

"We can fix the buildings, but we need some teachers. Buildings don't teach. Teachers teach," Wells said.

In the end, the commissioners voted 5-1 to meet at 1 p.m., Friday to discuss the teacher funding issue. Fussell was the dissenting vote.

Both sides, though, are leery about using their fund balance for what would be a recurring expense.

The county is looking to maintain a balance of about 25 percent of its $47.5 million budget, while the school system only has about $3 million in reserve -- much less than the three months of operating expenses its board members are striving for.

Commissioner Zettie Williams, though, reminded everyone that the school board is not required to have a fund balance.

"There are many counties in North Carolina that have a zero balance," she said.

And while she wasn't asking the school system to use all of its savings account, she did say that she would like to see the two boards work together to find the $1.1 million.

"What can we pull out of fund balance? What can you pull out of fund balance?" Williams said. "We're going to have to sell this to the public -- why the money's going to teachers when our buildings are like they are.

"We will have to see if we can have some kind of partnership."

Also Friday, the commissioners unanimously requested that Ms. Olivarez bring back a report further breaking down the school system's budget. They are looking for it to be delineated according to the four purpose areas -- instructional programs, supporting services, community services, non-programmed charges -- and the underlying two to seven functions in each.