No easy fix to school funding

By Scott Bigelow - Staff writer
Mike Smith -
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The second in a two-part series — editor.

LUMBERTON — With funding for public schools in Robeson County at rock bottom among North Carolina counties, local leaders are in agreement that our children deserve better.

A diverse group of leaders laid out their ideas in interviews last week.

A report from the North Carolina Public School Forum found Robeson County at 99th of 100 counties for local funding and 99th for school funding, even after the state chipped in $17 million of “low-wealth funding.” The result is old schools and student performance that ranks among the worst in the state, with 27 our of 42 schools labeled low-peforming.

“I know money won’t solve all of our education problems,” said 28-year school board member Mike Smith, “but I’m willing to give it a try.”

“It goes without saying that Robeson County needs economic development,” said Bo Biggs, a local Republican leader. “We’re stuck with all rural counties with one basic revenue source, property taxes.

“It’s a tough nut to crack, but we need a new revenue stream.”

State Sen. Danny Britt, who represents Robeson and Columbus counties, agrees with Biggs, but his efforts have so far met with resistance.

“I submitted a bill to redistribute sales taxes to rural counties, but the urban Republicans and Democrats fought it,” Britt said. “A bill I sponsored to fairly distribute economic incentive funds between rural and urban communities died in committee.”

This funding outcome has its roots in poverty. Robeson County has the lowest per capita income in the state, and the lowest taxable property wealth in the state. However, there is one funding source that local leaders agree needs to be tapped and that is long-term bond funding, both locally and statewide.

“When I came on the board 28 years ago, we were in the process of spending $64 million in local bond funds,” Smith said. “With 41 schools, it didn’t go far.”

Smith, who believes that with a good plan a local bonds would be approved by the voters in a referendum, also believes a state bond referendum should be put on the ballot. State Rep. Charles Graham, a 31-year veteran educator who represents Robeson, agrees.

“I would support a statewide bond referendum just for the public schools,” Graham said. “I would estimate a $3 billion referendum is reasonable.”

County government is supporting school operating budgets with relatively high taxes, but the county is not funding school construction. The last school built in Robeson County was in the 1980s. Teachers constantly complain about a lack of supplies and books.

Successive boards of commissioners and education have not planned for a bond referendum to build new schools since county schools were consolidated in 1989. The county has an excellent bond rating and the capacity to pay off a long-term bond.

“The county should have been paying all along for new schools,” said Robeson County Black Caucus President Jimmy Gilchrist. “We’re in a bad way now.”

For the state or the county to sell long-term, tax-free bonds are the most common and practical way to build schools in North Carolina. But the state is not adequately funding schools, either for operating or capital costs, according to the Public School Forum report titled “School Finance Study Confirms Vast Funding Disparities Across North Carolina.”

The Forum report found that the state provided $8.2 billion in operating expenses for North Carolina’s 115 school systems.

“While the level of funding has increased over time, the percentage of the state’s General Fund dedicated to education has declined,” the report states.

The decline in funding as a percentage of the entire General Fund fell from 52.5 percent in 1970-71 to 38.8 in 2015-16. State funding for school construction also is lagging, the Public School Forum finds.

In the 2015-16 school year, the state allocated only $17 million for public school construction. With the state backing away from funding public schools, another school of thought has emerged — that the public schools are broken and not worth funding.

This school of thought says pouring money into schools is not the answer, and charter schools and public funding of private schools, or school choice, is a better way.

The state-sponsored Innovative School District, which has taken over one Robeson school, is an attempt by Republican lawmakers to demonstrate that educational achievement can be accomplished in a county with the lowest per-pupil funding at one of its lowest performing schools.

“We won’t have any additional funding,” ISD’s Eric Hall said of the plan to run Southside-Ashpole Elementary School. “We want to establish a model for turning around low-performing schools.”

The Innovative School District will announce soon either a school management company that will hire its own teachers and will have flexibility with curriculum and management tools.

As one Robeson County teacher told county commissioners recently, her students need computers, but her classroom needs even more fundamental things, like heat and plumbing that works.

Here is more of what local leaders had to say about school funding:

Britt advocates reform of the state’s taxation system that would distribute more funds from sales taxes to rural counties. The growing power of urban North Carolina is an obstacle to that plan, he said.

“We all know that rural counties are suffering and cannot raise enough tax revenue from property or sales taxes,” he said.

Britt would level the playing field by redistributing sales taxes and ensuring rural areas get a fair share of economic development incentives.

Programs such as charter schools and the Innovative School District are important, but not the answer to Robeson County’s school problems, he said. More fundamental solutions — higher incomes, stronger families and good teachers – are needed, he said.

Graham said industrial recruitment to increase the tax base and per capita income in the county is the most fundamental issue regarding school funding.

Diverting funds to charter and private schools is a drain on school funding, he said.

“I have pushed for increased funding of the public schools, but our leadership is not on board,” he said, referring to Republican control of the N.C. General Assembly.

The lawmaker cited the need for school construction, and said Robeson County and the state need to raise money through bond referendums.

“The state’s school infrastructure needs help, especially in rural, eastern North Carolina,” Graham said. “I support a state school bond referendum of at least $3 billion.”

Gilchrist is a familiar figure at meetings of the county commissioners and the school board. The county’s priorities are in the wrong place, he said.

“The county needs to increase support, and so does the state,” Gilchrist said. “Charter schools are draining funds from the public schools.”

Robeson County’s classrooms need more computers, supplies and resources, and teachers need higher pay, he said. As for school construction, time is wasting, he said.

“The county should have been paying all along for new schools,” Gilchrist said.

Smith is the longest serving school board member and has watched the county’s decline in wealth and educational achievement.

“I wish I had an answer, and I’m receptive to anyone who has a plan to raise the bar for education and funding,” Smith said. “We need to increase our tax base.”

Smith is hopeful for state and local bond referendums. He believes Robeson County voters would approve more funding for school construction.

“If we come up with a good plan and can show people we are not wasting their money, I believe the voters will approve it,” Smith said. “Our needs are great. I’m not talking about wants, I am talking about needs.”

Biggs is a longtime observer of local and state politics and a member of the board of directors of the Golden LEAF Foundation. He is keenly aware that the quality of schools hurts the county’s ability to attract quality industry.

“We need a new revenue source,” Biggs said. “Low-wealth counties cannot tax themselves out of the school funding problem. We’re stuck looking to the state.”

Biggs would devise a new revenue structure that does not rely so heavily on property taxes. In reading the Public School Forum report, Biggs noted that Robeson County’s taxable property wealth per public school student is the lowest in the state.

The recent “big-bang” school construction proposal to close 30 schools and build 14 is not the answer to replacing Robeson County’s aging schools, Biggs said.

“When the state treasurer and auditor looked at it, they said it would bankrupt us in the long term,” Biggs said. “Perhaps, a smaller leasing plan would be possible.”

Educational reform efforts are “worthy,” but funding is the real problem, Biggs said.

Terry Smith has attended several recent meetings of the school board and county commissioners. He was a board member of Lumberton City Schools and served 12 years on the board of the merged Public Schools of Robeson County.

Smith said an opportunity to adequately fund the schools slipped away after the schools merged in 1989.

“When the schools merged, I took a strong position that we have a requirement to fund the schools at the state average,” Smith said. “That’s what we voted on, but at the request of the county commissioners, that was taken out after merger.”

The schools’ ability to succeed evaporated at that moment in history, Smith said.

“I cannot name one year in which education levels in Robeson improved since then,” he said. “We’ve taken a wrong turn.”

He advocates that the school board become the taxing authority, not the county commissioners.

“It’s the county commissioners’ job to adequately finance schools,” Smith said. “If they don’t want to do that, the authority should be taken away from them.”

Mike Smith Smith

By Scott Bigelow

Staff writer

Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]

Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]