Stanly school superintendent asks commissioners for additional funds

Discussions regarding the county’s budget and its funding of Stanly County Schools (SCS) took place during a public hearing Monday at the meeting of the county’s Board of Commissioners.

Superintendent Dr. Jeff James said “one of the most important things for economic development is educating our future workforce in the county.”

Using numbers from the 2017-18 budget, James used a slideshow presentation to show where Stanly’s numbers ranked.

Funding per student from N.C. county governing bodies averages as high as $3,305 among the 10 highest spending counties and $782 in the 10 lowest.

Stanly ranks 64th out of the 100 counties in the state in property value, but 81st in actual effort, or total current spending per a county’s average daily membership (ADM).

“The higher you go, the less money you are putting towards K-12 education,” James said.

He said the county’s revenue per ADM, or ability to pay, ranking is 67th.

Property values have fluctuated from 65th in 2018 up to 58th in 2019 to 64th in 2020, but the actual effort rank continues to increase from 77th in 2018 to 81st in 2020 “which is not a good trend for education in the county from local tax dollars,” James said.

The presentation also had Stanly compared with 10 counties located across the state with similar ADMs: Carteret, Haywood, Franklin, Granville, Rutherford, Lenoir, Vance, Columbus, Halifax and Hoke. Stanly, at $1,201 per ADM, ranked sixth among those counties.

Among neighboring counties, Stanly is below the state average of $1,676 per ADM.

James said people want to know about “return on investment” with county tax money and the schools.

“Everyone wants to know, ‘Am I getting a good return on my investment or am I throwing good money after bad?’ ” James said, showing a graphic which had Stanly just under the state average in grade-level proficiency.

“I feel pretty comfortable with saying you’re getting a fairly decent return on your investment,” James said.

According to James, 63 local positions in Stanly were being paid with local funds, putting the county $800,000 “in the red” running out of fund balance and “had to reduce positions through attrition.”

Currently, 22 positions are funded locally which James said “it really can’t go down much further and operate.”

He credited central office staff for working “60- to 70-hour weeks.”

“We enjoy it because it’s what’s best for children. It’s a calling, not a job,” James said.

James said a local grant which makes SCS competitive in retaining teachers, at about $318,000, is something he would like to see increased to $400,000. It would increase the average supplement for each teacher about $123, upping the average supplement to around $2,700, which is still less than the $3,100 neighboring county Cabarrus gives to its teachers.

Commissioner Tommy Jordan told James the information makes it appear “it must the commissioners’ fault” for local funding to not be at the state average.

“What people don’t always understand there are two ways you get your money…your staff and teachers are paid by the state,” Jordan said. “Our job is to build and support the buildings you teach in.”

Jordan said in his business if one customer does not pay their bill he can not go to another customer to charge them for it. He asked about the numbers for the current year, which James estimated at around $1,400 per student.

School boards asking county commissioners for more money is happening across the state because of the lack of an approved state budget, James added.

“If I recall right, you tell us how many buildings you’re going to have and it’s our job to build them. If we didn’t have as many buildings, we’d have more money,” Jordan said.

He said he was sure commissioners would offer support for SCS to the state writing a letter or going in person.

“I don’t like when a department comes to us because someone else is not doing their job,” Jordan said. “Not only are they not doing it but, ‘I need you to go fix it, Daddy, and I need you to pay for it until you do.’ If every other department did this, we would never get anything done.”

Jordan said if SCS knows the budget, number of teachers and money available, maybe it should be put in less buildings or different ones.

“But what we don’t do is write a bigger check because someone else is not doing their job,” Jordan said.

James said the schools were built as “community schools” and the county may have to look at where new schools may be built or expand existing elementary schools. He called on SCS and the commissioners to do a 5- to 10-year plan, which may include redistricting.

“You don’t save a lot closing down a school building,” James said.

Jordan responded, “I’m ignorant in asking this, not trying to be smart…isn’t that your job?”

He said he assumed SCS had staff for that.

“I didn’t join to design and run a school system,” Jordan said, to which James said it has to be a joint effort between the two boards.

“Otherwise, it will just be a piecemeal effort,” James said.

Jordan did praise the outgoing superintendent, saying he did “an amazing job” and he was sorry to see him go.

Chairman Matthew Swain asked about ability to pay, saying he had read the report interpreting it Stanly is at 56 percent then 44 “can’t afford to pay more taxes.”

James responded saying “the whole gist of this report is that other counties have chosen to raise taxes where we have not. ”

Swain said raising taxes would “put that burden on the population.”

“If in essence we raise taxes to give you more money, you spend more money on them because the students and family members are worse off,” he said.

James said city governments can also levy taxes to support school systems. He said SCS has approached Albemarle City Council to provide additional funding as well.

Approximately $2 million in federal money, James added, is going to four of the biggest at-risk schools, which are in Albemarle. He said SCS also pays an additional $2,500 stipend for teachers in those schools in grades 3-5 to prevent staff turnover.

“There are other entities that can share the burden of getting this rank looking better,” James said.