Currituck boards mull long-term fixes for school funding
By Reggie Ponder
Friday, January 18, 2019
CURRITUCK — Currituck commissioners and school board members still have miles to go before they reach agreement on whether the county schools need more local funding.
But the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education have agreed on a mechanism they hope will lead to a long-term solution to the schools’ funding needs.
Currituck school officials asked for Tuesday’s joint meeting with county commissioners to discuss the additional local funding they say is needed to close the budget hole in the school district’s budget for 2019-20. The school district has been plugging budget holes from its fund balance for several years but now has effectively depleted those reserves.
School Superintendent Mark Stefanik said at least $250,000 in additional county funding is needed to maintain school programming at its current level next year. Stefanik said the amount could be higher — as much as $400,000 — depending on the budget figures school officials receive from the state over the next few months.
To help develop a long-term solution for the schools’ funding needs, officials have discussed establishing a committee that includes members of both boards. Bob White, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said both boards need to move forward with setting up the panel and Commissioner Kevin McCord said he would be interested in serving.
School board member Bill Dobney, a former superintendent of the Currituck County Schools, gave commissioners a historical overview of the school district’s funding and performance that he previously has shared with fellow school officials.
According to Dobney, the Currituck County Schools consistently was ranked among the top three school districts in the state in various subject areas in the early 2000s. However, that began to change after the district lost “small school” funding — state monies set aside for smaller, rural school districts — and began taking on added expenses that included new school buildings and state-mandated personnel-related costs.
School officials urged their counterparts on the commission Tuesday to support a level of funding that would help the schools get back to that level of performance.
Commissioner Paul Beaumont questioned the relevance of the repeated references to Currituck’s student achievement in the early 2000s.
“What was the significance of how great Currituck County Schools used to be?” Beaumont asked.
School board member Dwan Craft said the schools had more money then, and as a result had more classroom support. Having coordinators of curriculum and instruction for each school especially made a big difference, she said.
“Over the years classroom support has dwindled,” added school board member Janet Rose.
But Beaumont said curriculum and other factors have also affected student achievement.
“I’m going to tell you it’s not just money,” Beaumont said.
It isn’t just money, agreed Currituck Board of Education Chairwoman Karen Etheridge, but she added that funding is a major component of what made the achievement possible.
Etheridge said she doesn’t understand why there seems to be division between the two boards over funding the schools.
“I’m tired of having to grovel to get everybody to come together for the betterment of our community,” Etheridge said. “I want us to be the shining star again.”
Stefanik touched briefly on a proposal by school officials to place Currituck tourism promotional materials on activity buses in exchange for $420,000 a year in occupancy tax revenue being paid to the school district.
“We could use that money virtually anywhere,” Stefanik said.
Stefanik called the occupancy tax proposal a creative idea to try to find some money to improve the schools’ budget situation. He noted that Currituck has fewer central office administrators than Camden, a neighboring district with significantly fewer students.
Members of the two boards briefly discussed the possibility of a property tax increase.
Commissioner Owen Etheridge said the county always has to consider the negative consequences of a tax hike. One of the most pressing issues for Currituck is maintaining a controlled pace of growth, Etheridge argued, and a property tax rate that forced landowners to sell property for development would escalate growth. Students are vital constituents of the county but so are landowners who pay property taxes, he said.
Karen Etheridge also said she doesn’t think a tax rate increase is the way to go. A better approach, she said, is to identify possible cuts in the county budget that could free up funds for school needs.
Commissioner Mary “Kitty” Etheridge pushed back, however, against the suggestion that the county might cut services, insisting that Currituck citizens want the current level of services they have.
“We’re going to have to cut services to students if we don’t do something different,” said school board member Janet Rose.
Currituck County Manager Dan Scanlon said he didn’t want it lost in the discussion that Currituck even now remains among the top tier of counties in providing local funding for schools. State changes have been a major factor in the changing level of funding for the schools, he said.
Scanlon said that in order for school funding to increase, something would have to change. Either there would have to be a sales tax increase, or a property tax increase, or some of the requested changes at the state level would have to come through, he said.