So when the school board takes a vote on April 12, they’ll be considering a budget that’s largely unchanged from what Superintendent Bob Grimesey initially proposed in early March.
That budget totals $141 million including a projected $83 million in state funds and $15.7 million from the federal government — about half of which is for COVID-19 relief. But the school board has the most negotiating power when it comes to the district’s allocation from the county commissioners.
The proposed budget for the upcoming year includes a $32.5 million local request, which is $2.1 million more than Moore County Schools got from the county for the current year. If the commissioners ultimately fulfill that request, the additional money would help pay for expenses associated with projected enrollment growth next year and a new support staff pay scale that the school board has deferred for several years for lack of available funds.
Board members concurred on the proposed budget’s fundamentals during their discussion on Monday, and responded to some of the concerns raised during a public hearing on the budget earlier this month. The school board received input from eight parents and school supporters during that hearing.
All of them supported the $2.1 million ask, though some suggested that the school board should request an even greater sum to add more teachers, and thereby bring down class sizes, in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms. But everyone who wrote in objected to the per-pupil funding approach that school staff used to compute the proposed funding request.
Testing the formula
The proposal is based on a recommendation from the board’s budget committee to use a fixed formula in determining how much funding the county allots to Moore County Schools each year. The formula itself would tie the change in that funding level to enrollment and to fluctuations in state funding from year to year.
But the school board has to approve its budget request based on projections, since the county and state won’t adopt their budgets until later in the year. So the schools projected a 3.7 percent increase in formulating this year’s proposal, based on an average of the change in state funding levels over the last four years.
“That is the baseline that we start from. Then each year it will be tied to what they do in Raleigh. So the 3.77 percent, at least my understanding is, that just gets us to today. Then if Raleigh does a five percent teacher raise and per-pupil funding goes up five percent or whatever, then the local funding will match that,” said board member David Hensley, who was one of the original proponents of adopting a funding formula.
“We have our local funding component,and it ties the annual increase in that to the annual increase in Raleigh. That’s important because, as everyone here knows and as we’ve discussed, when Raleigh does a teacher pay raise that creates an unfunded mandate for the same sort of raise for locally-funded positions.”
If the school board adopts the proposed budget next month, it will be presented to the county commissioners on April 20. There’s no guarantee as of yet that the commissioners will either fulfill this year’s budget request or agree to adhere to such a funding formula long-term.
“I’m just a skeptic on if the county commissioners will accept this or not, and do we have a ‘Plan B’ if they don’t?” said board member Stacey Caldwell. “What are we going to do if they don’t?”
Caldwell’s question has a solid basis in recent history, as the county routinely budgets less operational funding for Moore County Schools than the school board requests.
“We end up tightening our belts a little bit more and not advancing new programs or hiring additional people,” board Chair Libby Carter said, ticking off casualties of prior budget shortfalls: like Spanish immersion at West End Elementary, International Baccalaureate at Pinecrest and year-round calendar options at four elementary schools
“That’s why Mr. Hensley’s recommendation to get an agreement from our commissioners, which would tie them to an increase as it occurs on the state level, would be beneficial to us, because it would mean that as long as the state is continuing to maintain or increase funding at that same level, then our commissioners would have to maintain or increase,” said Carter.
Though parts of the equation are new, longtime board members say that per-pupil funding has always been a consideration. The county is obligated to fund charter schools at the same per-pupil level as its traditional public schools, and Moore County Schools acts as the administrator of those local funds to charters.
“What (Hensley) has recommended is using the state figure, per-pupil, that we’re getting from one year to the next to be the determining factor on whether our budget will be increased by the local or decreased or whatever,” said board member Ed Dennison.
“We’ve always had ‘X’ amount of dollars and they’re divided among the number of students within the county and the charter school students as well. The biggest change is where we tie it to the four-year average of increases, or decreases which could happen on the state level,” said Carter.
“Of course with the COVID money coming in we don’t know what the state’s likely to do with its funding.”
Caldwell also raised concerns about potentially creating a formal link between local funding and enrollment and what effect an enrollment decline could have on the district’s ability to cover fixed costs.
Carter said that the budget committee discussed that issue earlier this year.
“There are fixed costs that just don’t go away whether the school has 2,100 students in it or 1,800 students in it,” she said. “The only thing that changes are the state-funded teachers. You’ve still got those same classrooms and the same light bill basically, and the same insurance costs, but we talked about all of that. What we have to do is market our schools as the best available for children who live in Moore County and do our best to enroll them.”
“The best answer is that nobody has any reason to send their children to any other school other than Moore County Schools,” Hensley added.
Hensley said that if the school board explores a formal agreement with the county commissioners to adopt a funding formula, it should include a “safe harbor” provision that would ease the schools through a managed transition in the event of a severe enrollment decline.
Hensley is confident that the commissioners will fulfill the proposed $2.1 million increase if the schools approach them with “a genuine plan” to use some of their local funding in the coming years catching up on deferred building needs.
“I think they have to have confidence that we have a plan and that we’ll stick to our 20-year plan, at least for 10 years, then I think they’ll loosen the checkbook up,” he said. “I think they have the money. I think they’re looking for trust and they’re looking for a long-term plan. I think it’s counterproductive, whether it was intended or not, to publish ‘If we don’t get this money then here’s what’s going to happen,’ the end result of that was a non-productive mob.”
Covering new costs
Moore County Schools only stand to receive about $1.6 million of the proposed increase itself. The other $500,000 would cover increased funding to charter schools related to enrollment growth projected at 225 Moore County students.
About $550,000 of the new funding to the school district would go toward matching the salary increases that the state sets for all school employees, and to fund higher pay as teachers gain experience.
The $1.1 million remainder is designated for a new pay scale that would offer raises to unlicensed school support staff including bus drivers, custodians, teacher assistants and cafeteria workers. Moore County Schools formulated the proposed salary scale for classified employees several years ago, but have been unable to successfully fund it in the last two budget cycles.
The pay scale is designed to make the district competitive with neighboring school systems, counties and municipal governments. It would introduce a continuous series of raises for support staff members based on their experience and how long they’ve been employed by the district. As it is, longtime employees make little more than new hires.
Currently the lowest-paid full-time Moore County Schools employees make just under $12 an hour. Hensley pointed out that many of those “classified” workers would stand to gain if school staff were paid at the same level as other state employees,
“I think it’s in our legislative goals, but we should not have any full-time employees making less than $15 an hour and we need to figure out a way to get there,” he said. “It’s just unfair that the state has one standard for non-education employees and then they have another standard for classified staff.”
Fund increases proposed
Moore County Schools’ local budget request traditionally includes $750,000 each for digital learning and capital outlay outside of the operating budget. That amount has remained constant for about seven years.
The district also gets about $850,000 a year for capital needs from the state lottery, but apart from that the county allocation is the district’s sole dependable source of funds for building maintenance and repairs.
Board members all agreed that number should be adjusted upwards after Robert Levy made the suggestion.
“I don’t like baseline budgets, but if you’re going to do a baseline budget … you have to account for inflation,” said Levy. “Otherwise you’re going to really be reducing your budget rather than keeping your budget set. Everyone knows that construction costs have just gone through the roof.”
Grimesey suggested increasing the capital and digital requests by the same factor of 3.7 percent applied to the proposed operating budget. That would work out to a request for $778,275 in each fund.
“I think we’ve looked at some new ideas this year and have begun to really lay out some key goals that we want to accomplish in the future, whether it’s increasing the digital fund, whether it’s carrying through on more of the capital projects that we need to have done, whether it’s in operational expenses, we’ve got a pretty good handle on what we need to ask for and how to do that,” Carter said. “So I, for one, feel very good about what we’re putting together.”