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Dobney: Schools good stewards of funds

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

CURRITUCK — As a county-initiated special audit of the Currituck County Schools gets underway, the chairman of the Board of Education is seeking to reassure the public that school officials have been good stewards of taxpayer funds.

School board Chairman Bill Dobney presented a report at the Nov. 2 work session of the Currituck Board of Education that he said shows the school district has cut numerous personnel positions and other expenses in response to greater needs with limited resources.

Meanwhile, the company that is performing the audit of the school district, Florida-based Evergreen Solutions, met with school staff during the first week of November and is expected to be back for additional work near the end of the month.

In Dobney’s report, he notes that local funding for the Currituck schools is based on a per-pupil index formula that dates back to 1996. It’s a formula, the report states, that is “no longer sufficient” to generate the local funding the district needs.

Dobney explained in an interview that at the time the formula was implemented there was an understanding by both school and county officials that it would need to be revisited if “small schools” funding from the state were lost or if the county opened new schools. Both things have happened, Dobney said.

One of the greatest impacts for the local school district was the loss of small schools funding from the state, according to Dobney. Beginning in 2009 that loss amounted to $1.49 million a year for a total loss to Currituck of $13.41 million as of this year.

Meanwhile, the school district has opened three new schools that together have generated an additional expense of $900,000 a year, according to the report.

The funding formula is based on an adjusted student population, which takes the planning allotment from the state and subtracts the number of out-of-county students attending Currituck schools. That number, multiplied by the previous year’s per-pupil funding, plus an adjustment for the consumer price index, yields the local funding amount for school operations. School capital outlay is a separate figure from the current expense item.

Dobney said the prices of a number of supplies the school districts buys — most notably fuel — tend to increase at a rate higher than the CPI.

There have also been other expenses not envisioned by the formula. For example, the purchase of Chrome Books for students was a one-time expense of $500,000, the report states. Employee salary supplements have added $1.7 million a year to the district’s budget, while the district is spending $80,000 this year for new teachers to comply with state-mandated class size restrictions.

Health insurance and retirement expenses together have added nearly $1.14 million a year in costs, the report notes.

In order to balance the district’s budget in the face of these rising costs, school officials have reduced the number of curriculum instructional coordinators from nine to three; eliminated the positions of public relations director, transportation director, More at Four director, career and technical education testing director, CCLC director and maintenance secretary. The district also has reduced the number of data managers from 10 to three; gone from two secretaries for the Exceptional Children’s Program to one; eliminated two assistant principal positions; eliminated a social worker position; eliminated a secondary curriculum director position; and reduced a counselor position from full-time to half-time.

Dobney included in his report a statement from Bill Richardson, who was county manager in Currituck when the school funding formula was implemented, that the per-pupil allocation was intended to be adjusted annually to reflect changes in the costs of school operations, including new facilities and changes in state funding such as the loss of small schools funding.

“The per-pupil allocation was meant to be revised as circumstances changed and to be flexible,” the report quotes Richardson as saying.

One of the report’s stark conclusions is that the schools’ fund balance is being depleted at a rate that, absent additional funding from the county, the schools will have to cut programs in the 2019-20 budget year. Dobney said he expects school officials will seek additional local funding in the 2018-19 budget year to avoid depleting the fund balance.

lf the district has to cut programs, Dobney said, school officials would look first at eliminating things other than the basic core curriculum.

Dobney’s report notes the funding increases that some other county-funded services have received in recent years. Since 2005 funding has increased by 283 percent for animal control, 193,3 percent for emergency medical services, 110.7 percent for the sheriff’s office, and 64.3 percent for the jail, according to the report.

"I'm not begrudging any of the public safety organizations that got those big raises," Dobney said. “I am just looking for equity for the schools in funding.”

Dobney said he has sent a copy of the report to Evergreen.

Responding to Dobney’s report, Currituck Commissioner Paul Beaumont said last week that the school board was warned repeatedly that the small schools money would run out and that the district shouldn’t be hiring teachers with those funds because they would end at some point.

Beaumont, who has been a leading advocate for the special audit and has pressed school officials on questions about funding and other issues, said he continues to have concerns about the schools —  including how money is spent.

Beaumont said he is not saying the schools don’t need more money. But he wants to know the schools are using their funding effectively and efficiently, he said.

As a county commissioner it’s his responsibility to Currituck citizens to ensure the schools are “getting the bang for the buck,” Beaumont said.

Beaumont said he is looking forward to seeing Evergreen’s report. He said he is confident that the report will provide the information and insight that commissioners need.

Beaumont said education is critical to the well being of the county and he is committed to supporting education. But he is just not convinced that more money is the answer, he said.

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