06/07/09 — Duplin commissioners further restrict school board funding

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Duplin commissioners further restrict school board funding

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 7, 2009 2:00 AM

The Duplin County Board of Commissioners took action Thursday to further restrict the Board of Education's flexibility to spend its local allotment of $10.1 million.

Earlier this month the commissioners made the decision to fund the school system on a purpose and function level, meaning that the money was put into specific codes detailing how it can be spent.

However, according to the state's General Statutes, the school board has the ability to move 25 percent of the money in each purpose and function -- a total of about $1.8 million -- to another category without asking permission from the commissioners.

The question, though, explained County Manager Mike Aldridge, was whether or not the school board could move money only within those purpose and function codes already funded by the commissioners, or whether it could move money into any purpose and function code.

So, he continued, the commissioners decided to exercise their statutory authority to restrict the school board to only a 10 percent flexibility -- a total of about $642,000.

"If we had not restricted them to less than 25 percent they could have moved a lot of money," Aldridge said.

And that would have run contrary to the commissioners' stated goal of making sure the school board spends its local allocation in a way they feel most appropriate -- focusing on school facilities, maintenance and capital outlay, the commission's statutory responsibiltiies. Though funds appropriated for athletics and JROTC were left in place.

However, school officials say the decision has hurt their ability to staff the school system even more. Already the commission declined to provide funding specifically for personnel and staff supplements, now it has cut back even more on their flexibility, school finance officer Jo Ann Hartley said.

"We were just asking them to free up the money a little and give us at least a little bit in each purpose and function," she said, referring to her request at Thursday's work session.

What the commissioners did, though, was the opposite.

"It's just going to make it more difficult for us to operate," she said.

And, she added, there are few other options for her to find more money for those needs.

"I've never worked with this type of restriction," Ms. Hartley, a 30-year school veteran, said. "I've been working on it, but it's hard to find any moeny anywhere, it's all restricted. But I'm working on it."

In all likelihood, she said, they'll end up using at least some of their projected $2 million fund balance.

"But what if there's an emergency ... or things are worse next year? You don't want to pay recurring expenses from one-time money. We need some fund balance," she said.

But, said county commission Chairman Cary Turner, the board is not likely to change it's mind.

He noted that the 10 percent flexibility could pay for 10 teachers and two nursing positions the school board is looking to fill.

"Let's see if they use it for that," he said. "If that's a priority, if it were me, I'd use that money to fill those positions."

Also at Thursday's work session, the board decided to give a 2 percent educational salary increase -- total of $4,000 taken from the county's $100,000 contingency fund -- to the five employee who earned a college degree in the past year, and to drop the tax rate from the revenue neutral point of 70.16 cents per $100 value to 69 cents.

"That's just to show a good faith effort to the taxpayers," Turner said, adding that the decrease wasn't expected to hurt county revenues too much.

Finally, he said, the board decided to wait until after its June 15 meeting -- where it will approve the budget -- to meet with the school board, despite Commissioner Reginald Well's motion to meet as soon as possible, and the school board's request to meet on June 10 or 11.

"They weren't in a hurry to meet before, so why the rush now? They shouldn't have waited until the last minute, just days before the budget's approved. What can be said that wasn't said last Monday night? That was pretty blunt," Turner said.