LUMBERTON — Superintendent Johnny Hunt doesn’t care where the money comes from to keep the Public Schools of Robeson County operating, but he says the system needs more of it — and more freedom on how to spend it.
Asked by The Robesonian last week if he thinks the county Board of Commissioners should provide more local funding for operating and maintaining the county’s 42 public schools — the state’s 19th largest district — Hunt chose his words carefully.
“I really don’t know what the overall financial status of the county is,” said Hunt, a former chairman of the county Board of Commissioners. “Their status is very important and has to be given consideration because any decision they make affects everyone.
“Sure, I’d like to see more money. But I don’t care where the money comes from. I just want to have enough money so we can continue to offer the services that benefit our students and keep people employed.”
The school district’s proposed $235 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was submitted to Kellie Blue, the county’s finance director, this week. The document is just a “planning budget” that can’t be finalized until the General Assembly approves its final education budget, according to Erica Setzer, the school district’s chief finance officer.
The commissioners on Monday begin work on the fiscal year 2012-13 budget that becomes effective July 1. Both Hunt and Setzer say that county officials over the years have worked well with the schools in an effort to supply as much funding as possible.
“They have been wonderful to work with,” Hunt said. “There have been no arguments over the years, at least over the past six years that I have been superintendent.”
According to Setzer, the county’s allocation in the school district’s current budget is about $17 million. Included in that amount, she said, is a general appropriation of $12.3 million, allocated based on a state formula; $3.5 million in sales tax to be used for capital outlay projects; and another $1 million from court fines and personal property forfeitures paid to the county.
Interim County Manager Ricky Harris said that the schools can bank on receiving from the county at least the same amount of funding they received this current fiscal year; anything above that would be the call of the commissioners.
‘The commissioners make the policy,” Harris said. “I just work the numbers.”
Hunt points to the size of the school district when he talks about dealing with state funding cuts that have totaled $28 million since the 2009-10 school year. The district, he said, includes 24,000 students, employs 4,400 people, and runs 257 buses 15,000 miles every day.
He also notes the effect the cuts have on the local economy.
“That $28 million taken from our budget is money that is not turning over in the community,” he said.
Hunt said the district currently needs $300 million to construct new facilities. The district’s budget now only includes $9 million for capital projects.
According to Setzer, the district will have to revert back to the state about $8 million in funds during the next fiscal year. The next budget will also be without $4.8 million in federal stimulus money that is now being used to pay about 135 teachers through September.
Setzer said that the schools are now responsible for paying more to match an individual’s cost to participate in the state’s health insurance plan. The schools also have to increase the match it pays on the gross wages of eligible retirees.
Both Hunt and Setzer said they hope some changes in federal Title I regulations will add the flexibility school districts need to spend federal dollars in areas that best meet their needs. They said that the schools will no longer have to pay the transportation cost for students utilizing their option of school choice, and a savings is also expected as a result of changes in federal regulations regarding the supplemental services the district must provide for Title I students.
Hunt said more “flexibility” in spending would benefit local school districts.
“We know how to best use the money,” he said.
Both Hunt and Setzer said it is too soon to know if personnel cuts will be needed..
“There are still so many undetermined variables,” Setzer said. “But if nothing changes in the planning allotments, and there are no more cuts, we should be able to get by with what we have now.”
Hunt said that state legislators don’t realize that cutting funding makes reaching statewide goals of low dropout rates, higher test scores and improved graduation rates more difficult.
“There are still some people who don’t think we have been cut any money, and some of those people are state legislators,” he said.
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.