03/16/09 — Duplin school leaders question study's findings

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Duplin school leaders question study's findings

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on March 16, 2009 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- A consulting firm that recommended a number of ways the Duplin County school system could save money received mixed reviews Thursday night during a joint meeting of school board and county commissioners.

The commissioners hired Evergreen Solutions last year to assess the school system's financial situation, and in February, the company gave its report, suggesting 36 ways the school system could trim costs.

The study cost the county $75,000, and the commissioners have been considering hiring the company to do the same study for the county. The estimated price tag for the county study would be about $120,000.

School officials said they liked Evergreen's idea of consolidating all administrative functions under one roof. Evergreen recommended moving administration into the nearby Hardison Building, which was formerly used by Duplin-Sampson Mental Health before it became Eastpointe and moved to Goldsboro.

The school system's administrative offices are currently spread out between two older buildings in downtown Kenansville. Maintenance Director Bobby Norwood said moving those offices into the Hardison Building is not a bad idea.

"It would save money," he said. But he added that Evergreen's suggested $60,000 savings a year in energy cost might be overly optimistic.

And several other Evergreen recommendations are not feasible, said Carolyn Olivarez, the school system's chief finance officer. More than half of Evergreen's suggested "savings" are not valid, she said.

For example, one of the Evergreen suggestions was that the school system drop programs when the money stops coming from the government.

In some cases, that can be done, she said. But in others, it is not possible.

"There are some federal programs we can cut when the grant ends," she said. But in other cases, the mandates do not disappear when the money goes away, she pointed out.

"If (the state) would release the class size requirements, we'd be OK," she said. "The suggested $2.5 million in savings over five years is an artificial number. You are not going to save that."

For example, she said, when the federal money stops coming for the exceptional children's classes, that mandate remains in place but Duplin will still have to come up with the money.

"We've got a lot of children with special needs and a lot of children at risk of failure," said school board chairman Emily Manning.

And although Evergreen said the Duplin schools have too many assistant principals, assistant teachers and administrators, the study's own figures showed that Duplin's numbers are in the middle compared to surrounding counties.

"Their own information contradicts itself," Mrs. Olivarez said.

"They say one thing in one place and another thing in another place," said school Superintendent Wiley Doby.

The next step, commissioner David Fussell said, is to talk to Evergreen President Linda Recio about the school board's response.

"I want them to either reaffirm (the study results) or say they made a mistake," he said. "We spent $75,000 for those figures. That's a lot of money ... If the school board is right, we misspent our money."

County manager Mike Aldridge said he hopes the commissioners rethink hiring Evergreen.

"We need to move carefully," he said. "My suggestions were to narrow the scope of the study and make sure we got what we were looking for and at least interview other firms. The board is still interested in having a study done to settle the question of whether we're overstaffed and put that (issue) to rest."