10/23/09 — Duplin commission, schools still at odds over salary funding

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Duplin commission, schools still at odds over salary funding

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on October 23, 2009 1:46 PM

The Duplin County school system will run out of money to pay janitors' salaries before the end of this school year if officials are unable to come up with an alternative source of funding.

Right now, the janitors and clerical workers are still employed, still doing their jobs and still being paid. But that could change before next summer, Chief Finance Officer Joann Hartley said.

"They're getting paid. We'll run out of money before the end of the year if something's not done," she said.

About 15 employees with the school system would be affected by the funding shortfall, Mrs. Hartley said.

The N.C. legislature cut funding for school custodian and clerical staff salaries earlier this year, leaving school systems scrambling to come up with the additional money in an already challenging budget year.

The school board previously sought to shift $727,000 from a capital reserve fund to use to pay the workers, but the Duplin County Board of Commissioners voted down the proposal. The entire $727,000, and more, is needed to pay the salaries, Mrs. Hartley said.

"It's actually a little more. It's money we were allocated last year as a current expense item," she said. "This year they put it in capital reserve."

Commissioner David Fussell stated at the time that he would not approve any such budget amendment for the school board while the lawsuit against the commissioners, now being deliberated in the state Court of Appeals, still stands.

The commissioners' decision not to allow the school board to shift the money from one category to another was a legal action, Mrs. Hartley said.

"It's legal. They can put it in any category and refuse to move it," she said.

However, the decision is also an unusual one, she added.

"It's not normal, I don't know of any school system that restricts their money so tightly," Mrs. Hartley said.

Many counties restrict local school funding in terms of purpose and function, but Duplin County is the only county Mrs. Hartley said she is aware of that "gives money in every purpose and function, but only allocates money in five purpose and function categories."

The school board does not currently have a contingency plan to pay the janitors if the county commissioners do not approve the funding shift.

"We haven't really discussed what we're going to do if they don't approve it," Mrs. Hartley said. "There is no alternative funding at this point, unless we go into the fund balance. If their pleas fall on deaf ears, I'm sure they will consider that."

The issue was not on the school board's meeting agenda Tuesday night, and the board members did not discuss the funding problem. The finance office has not pursued any further funding possibilities.

"I haven't, I'm waiting on the board of education," Mrs. Hartley said.

The state had to cut the revenues this year because of declining sales revenue and other money problems, Paul Lesieur, director of school business services with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, said about the issue.

"The general assembly cut close to $760 million out of the budget this year," he said. "$379 million was for non-instructional support, which school systems use to pay for clerical and janitorial type staff."

However, the state was able to replace the funding for K-12 education in that category using federal fiscal stabilization funds, Lesieur said. How that money was used is up to the local school officials.

The Duplin County school system received $68,000 from the state for non-instructional support as part of the $46 million allotment of state funds.

But it wasn't just the non-instructional support money that was cut, which for many school systems meant laying off teachers, Lesieur said. Many school systems chose to use the replacement money to save instructional jobs, he said.

"Ultimately the school districts have the decision of what they're going to reinstate with that $379 million that they received," Lesieur said. "That's a local decision, how they utilized the funds."

But given the circumstances, the state department supports local government agencies working together to solve problems.

"We would hope that they (commissioners) would give them flexibility in these two years, but we can't force a local government commission to do that," Lesieur said.

And regardless of what happens this school year, the next might be even worse.

"The cuts increase next year. At this point in time, we expect it to be closer to $900 million," he said.