LUMBERTON — Out of 100 counties in the state, Robeson County spent the second least amount per student during the 2011-2012 school year, according to a report by the Public School Forum of North Carolina.
The county's spending came out to $484 per student — just $85 more than Swain County and $1,000 less than the state average.
And there isn't likely to be a significant increase on the local level because the $11,343,750 the Public Schools of Robeson County received that year came from property taxes.
“Property wealth isn't going to change overnight,” said Emma Swift, the senior research analyst who wrote the Public School Forum of North Carolina's 2013 Local School Finance Study.
Additionally, Robeson County's property tax rate of 77 cents for every $100 of property is already among the highest in the state.
Local school officials say they're becoming more reliant on state funding and supplements the General Assembly doles out to low-wealth communities like Robeson County — and increasingly concerned about future cuts.
Out of 100 counties, Robeson County ranks last in terms of real estate wealth available to students, $254,201 per student, according to the study.
Orange County, which had $822,021 in property wealth available per student that year, spent $4,183 per student — more than Columbus, Greene, Clay, Graham, Hoke, Robeson and Swain counties combined, the report said.
Property tax revenue goes towards a schools system's utility costs, facilities maintenance and athletics programs, according to Erica Setzer, chief finance officer for the Public Schools of Robeson County. Schools can also use county money to make up for shortcomings in areas typically funded by the state.
“The local dollar is the most flexible type of dollar,” Setzer said. “You don't have the same type of regulations (as state funding) … so the school system has the ability to be a little more creative.”
Local money is often used to supplement state money earmarked for salaries and benefits. According to Setzer, the state regulates pay-scales for staff but a school system can add to that base salary to make itself more competitive.
According to Linda Emanuel, assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for the Public Schools of Robeson County, that's one area where Robeson County “desperately” needs help. According to Emanuel, other school districts are able to offer potential employees signing bonuses and relocation assistance that Robeson County cannot.
Dwayne Smith, a member of The Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education, said one way to raise some local money would be to charge for student transfers.
“We have an average of about 2,000 students each year transferring from one school to another,” Smith said. “If we charged $200 for each transfer, that would raise $400,000. That would be only about $1 per day that parents would have to pay for their child's transfer.”
Although K-12 education accounts for the biggest part of North Carolina's general operating budget, the percentage of the budget that schools get has been on the decline since the 1970s, according to the Public School Forum of North Carolina's study.
Emanuel says state funding for schools is already “cut to the bone.” The dollar amount schools receive has increased in recent years, but so has the cost of materials.
“We operate on a yearly basis and we have learned to live within those constraints …,” Emanuel said. “Our anxiety level is in anticipation of how it will be cut in the next school year.”
Emanuel worries that state officials don't “see the domino effect” of cutting education funding.
“I would love to see the county commissioners and school board members actually sitting at a table making a fiscal plan,” Emanuel said. ” … It seems to me that different people are working on different agendas when it comes to education.”
State funds, which added up to about $7.5 billion in the 2011-2012 year, are allocated towards specific expenditures, like paying teacher assistants, buying textbooks and financing programs for students with disabilities. About 90 percent of state funds in the 2011-2012 school year went to salaries and benefits, according to the study.
For each category, the school system is given a formula to calculate how much money it will get, Setzer said. The formulas, which are usually several pages long, take into account how many students and how much wealth a county has.
“A lot of people just think we have access to a hundred million dollars and we get to spend it,” Setzer said.
State funding covers many items that would make a school system look well-funded. The iPads provided to some Robeson County students, for example, are paid for with the same state money wealthier counties get.
“Anything a student can physically touch is covered,” Setzer said. Federal funding also helps the school system pay for textbooks and technology.
“All of those things have made us very comparable as far as tech and training,” Emanuel said, explaining that Robeson County students aren't at a loss for resources at school, but may not have the same access to computers and study materials outside of school as those in wealthier counties.
Supplements for being a low-wealth county have also helped put Robeson County. During the 2011-2012 school year, the state provided an additional $738 per Robeson County student, raising the total amount spent per student to $1,222 — still $735 per student below the state average when including low-wealth funding.
Emanuel said low-wealth funds account for about one quarter of all the funding in the areas of curriculum and instruction and are put towards tutoring, supplies, equipment and staff development.
“It would be hard for us to operate without that money,” she said.
Robeson County also ranks last when it comes to what the Public School Forum of North Carolina calls “ability to pay.” According to Swift, this measures how much a county can generate in revenue.
Swift said in the 27 years the Public School Forum of North Carolina has compiled its Local School Finance studies, counties ranked at the bottom of their lists tend to stay there.
“The counties that have been have been low-wealth have been low-wealth the whole time,” Swift said. “In our higher wealth counties we've seen a lot more fluctuation; we've seen them react to the housing crisis.”'
But, Swift said, the purpose of the study isn't to point fingers.
“The study calls all of North Carolina — the business community, churches and nonprofits, and policy makers at the local and state levels — to be creative about the way we address inequities aross the state and support our schools and students in low wealth districts,” Swift said.