06/03/09 — Duplin residents criticize school board's spending plans

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Duplin residents criticize school board's spending plans

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 3, 2009 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The more than 300 person crowd at the Duplin County Board of Education meeting Tuesday night wasn't quite as large as it was for the county commissioners the day before, but those who did come to Kenan Auditorium were just as vocal.

"Last night I showed up ready to tar and feather and ride the commissioners out on a rail or hang them high, one," said Amy Costin. "But I left feeling I had been duped into doing the Board of Education's dirty work.

"The Board of Education seems to be at war with the Board of Commissioners, and our children are being used as pawns in these games between the boards."

Ms. Costin, like nearly 1,000 other county residents, attended the commissioners' meeting Monday after being told the board was forcing the school system to cut out programs like athletics and JROTC.

But while the commission took immediate action to rectify those situations, school officials maintained that the county's restrictions on the rest of the local funds, combined with state budget cuts, will force the elimination of teachers, teacher assistants, assistant principals and other positions, as well as programs like career and technical education.

However, many of those speaking Tuesday said that if those cuts occur, the school board also will share in the blame, criticizing its funding priorities and unwillingness to accept that some cuts are inevitable after it submitted a budget request of $12.5 million from the county.

Some speakers, including several students, stood to discuss the school system's capital and maintenance issues, including a field trip they were told was canceled because of the possibility the activity bus might break down, and the shortage of textbooks in more than one classroom.

Kendall Wolz, a senior at James Kenan High, told the board that one of the first things she learned in her senior government class, once they started discussing finances and budgets, was about the need to prioritize.

"You have to prioritize, and I don't feel like your priorities are straight with this budget," she said.

She also reminded the board of the lessons learned in kindergarten about the need to share, apologize and not take what doesn't belong to you.

"I'd like to place my faith in you all being able to figure this out," she said. "Don't wait another day to settle this dispute."

Jimmy Dixon agreed that the board's priorities are not in order, noting that over the last decade, the growth of non-teacher positions has vastly outpaced the growth of students, teachers and teacher assistant positions, and that when federal, state and local dollars are all taken into account, the county actually spends a competitive amount per student.

Additionally, Warsaw Mayor Win Batten wondered why the school board has not appeared to take any of the cost-saving measures submitted by the Evergreen consulting company -- which was hired by the county to audit the school system -- into consideration.

Even if the $15 million in proposed savings isn't reasonable right now, he said, maybe $2 million -- the amount being cut by the state, and the amount the school board says it needs maintain at least some of the 46 teacher and 25 teacher assistant positions being threatened -- could be found.

"I haven't heard anything said about looking at that audit," he said. "But if the teachers are suffering, what about the central office? What about the Board of Education? Let's all suffer together."

And, asked Jennipher Edwards, why isn't the school board rallying parents to march on Raleigh -- where the majority of the cuts are occurring. Local funding -- $10.1 million total -- is the same as the current fiscal year.

Instead, said Ronny Bostic, there seems to be a disconnect, especially when board members take taxpayer-funded trips to San Diego (for a national conference earlier last year) and it continues to maintain a multimillion fund balance.

"There's an old saying -- 'You lead by example,'" Bostic said. "You're saying you'd rather keep that money (in fund balance) than have teachers.

"You're saying you're planning for the future with it, but I'd say the future doesn't look too bright without teachers.

After the meeting, however, Bo Mullins, associate superintendent for human resources, explained that even if cuts were made at the central office level, that does not automatically mean more money would be available for teachers because those salaries are paid for with state dollars.

"They give us an allotment, and it can only be used for central office administration," he said. "Right now, the state's recommending that we cut one central office position. If we were to cut three positions, the money from the other two would revert back to the state, too."

But as to why that wasn't explained to the speakers Tuesday night, board chairwoman Emily Manning would only say because "if we tried to address every speaker, we'd be here all night."

She did say that the school administration and the board were continuing to look at ways to tighten the budget so that maybe some of these cuts can be avoided, but she didn't know where those cuts might occur.

The school board and the county commissioners also are planning to meet later this month to discuss lifting restrictions on the schools' $7 million in current expense funding.