06/02/09 — Commission puts funds back for athletics, JROTC; debate continues

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Commission puts funds back for athletics, JROTC; debate continues

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 2, 2009 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County commissioners received a much-expected earful Monday night at the public hearing on their 2009-10 spending plan.

The previously scheduled hearing came just days after e-mails began circulating about the commission's funding of the school system and the possible consequences of those decisions -- no teacher supplements, no career and technical education supplies, no athletics and no JROTC, just to name a few.

But before anybody had the opportunity speak, the commission tried to defuse the situation.

Commission Chairman Cary Turner started off the meeting.

"Since last Friday there has been a feeding frenzy of false and inflammatory statements about local funding for the Board of Education," he said. "I am not pleased that over 1,800 children in our county have had to worry about future participation in athletics. I am not pleased that a few selfish individuals have attempted to pressure this board by using scare tactics on children."

He explained that because the commissioners felt that past funds given as lump sums were spent for unapproved uses, " ... it was necessary to make corrections in the way we allocate funds for education."

That meant restricting the school system's $10.1 million to only what the commission is legally required to pay for -- facilities, maintenance, insurance and basic operations.

"We commissioners are charged basically with our school buildings. We took a tour of our school buildings and the fact is, they all appear to be in a state of disrepair that is not acceptable," Commis-sioner David Fussell said.

And, Turner added, when the school board has been given money for facility upkeep, "they have not taken care of them, not as they should have."

But, he admitted, the way the board went about channeling the funding didn't go as smoothly as it had hoped.

"This was a new and complicated experience for us," Turner said. "I am now aware that past boards have used local money to fund athletics ... (and) I'm in a better position to recommend a course of action to the board."

And with that he moved that $500,000 be allocated for athletics, while Commissioner Reginald Wells moved to allocate $350,000 to JROTC -- both of which were approved unanimously.

But while those actions seemed to mollify some in the crowd, many wanted more.

"Education is more than just athletics and ROTC," said school board member Reginald Kenan, reminding commissioners that local dollars also are needed for teacher supplements, teacher positions, teacher assistants and assistant principals -- all of which school officials say will still be unfunded if the budget passes in its current form.

"You're wrong," he continued, to wild applause from teachers, parents and other educators. "We can't do it the way we did it 20 or 30 years ago."

Others in the more than 1,000 person crowd, which overflowed into the parking lot and beyond at the Duplin agricultural center, also called out the commissioners for their lack of action on teachers, even as they thanked them for saving athletics and JROTC.

"I'm a bit confused. As soon as athletics came up, boom, more money. As soon as ROTC came up, boom, more money. I just assumed you would do the same for teachers," said Susan Carone. "Why can't we shift some money from that 6500 line item to another line item to fund teachers?"

If the budget passes in its current form, explained Bo Mullins, assistant superintendent for human resources, Duplin schools stand to lose 46 teacher positions, 25 teacher assistant positions, 15 to 20 instructional and non-support staff, and many of its literacy coaches.

And while the majority of those losses are due to cuts in state funding, he said that the commissioners could begin to meet those needs with an additional $2 million allocation, or at the very least, by allowing the school board the flexibility to use its local funds as it sees fit.

"If they would at least unrestrict that money, I could shape it and mold it to save teachers," he said. "And I don't think that's unreasonable.

"We need to figure out how we can save people. We're talking almost 100 families. It's our responsibility."

However, Turner reiterated that the problem is that in the past, the commission thought it was funding 26 teaching positions when in fact the school board was using that money elsewhere.

"That said to us they didn't need those positions," Turner said.

But to many in the crowd, that explanation was simple gamesmanship motivated by the board's distrust of Super-intendent Dr. Wiley Doby.

"The board needs to rise above that," said former school board member Graham Philips.

"I realize this stems from the Board of Education redirecting money," said Amy Costin. "But what message does this send to businesses -- that we don't place any value on education and the future of our children."

And whether it's the commission's legal responsibility or not, many said they feel the county has an obligation to help fund more than just facilities.

"Ethically and morally, I would hope you would do more for our children than the lowest requirement," said Susan Sellars.

But the commissioners weren't prepared Monday to make any further changes to their school funding plan.

"I wish it were that easy," Turner said. "But there's only 13,000 people out of 53,000 who pay property tax. They want us to pull the money right out of nowhere.

"Maybe they just want us to redirect the money we've given them. Anything's possible. But the problem is that only one out of every four people pay property taxes."