LUMBERTON — Nearly broke this past summer, the Public Schools of Robeson County has made headway in turning around its finances, moving from the red to the black in a matter of months.
In a financial report delivered to the Board of Education earlier this month, school administrators reported 120 fewer certified employees, 73 more students, 62% fewer substitute teachers and four fewer schools. The one-month savings add up to nearly $1 million, comparing September, in which the current school year began, to May, when the last academic year ended.
Despite hearing congratulations from a member of the North Carolina Board of Education, not one school board member offered a word of thanks or encouragement.
Local board Chairman John Campbell said the board’s members were “distracted” by other developments, including the sudden resignation of longtime member Loistine DeFreece.
“Celebration is in order because this is the payoff for making difficult decisions,” Campbell said. “This is validation that much has been accomplished, and it should strengthen our resolve to move forward.”
But Mike Smith, board chairman for 2018-19, was less generous. Smith’s wait-and-see attitude has some merit, but it shows a school board that is deeply divided.
“The big thing is the state has not passed the budget,” Smith said. “We are improving and that is good. We are headed in the right direction with consolidation.”
Smith is correct, as the financial report spells out. Because the state budget is deadlocked between the governor and the General Assembly, pay and benefit increases are not reflected in the current numbers.
If the financial report had picked other dates to make its comparison, the savings would have been large, but not as large.
The largest cost saving, $450,836, came from the elimination of 120 teaching positions, from 1,632 certified personnel in May to 1,512 in September. Some of the savings were the result of closing some schools and consolidating others.
Other savings came from matching lower enrollment numbers to fewer teachers.
Total PSRC employment is down by 186 employees to 2,721 at the start of this school year. The district had 2,907 employees at the end of last school year.
The board approved a restructuring plan laid out by Superintendent Shanita Wooten and endorsed by the state Board of Education in May, walked it back in June, and approved it on July 19. With school set to start in about a month, school administrators had a little time to accomplish the task.
“It was hard,” said Finance Director Erica Setzer, who made the financial presentation to the board.
Students were reassigned to new schools, causing changes to bus routes and school enrollments. Many teachers were reassigned to new schools, new grades and new subjects, and some went back into the classroom from other assignments.
“Human resources and (assistant superintendent) Melissa Thompson met with teachers and principals to get it done,” Setzer said.
The superintendent said it was “very challenging” and was generous with her praise for the work by her staff and others.
“The staff stepped up to the plate,” Wooten said. “They were committed to making it work and really showed resilience in tough times.
“It was not just about me, although it seemed like it at times,” she said. “I am thankful for the help of board members who backed the plan.”
Wooten also thanks the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the state Board of Education and county Board of Commissioners Chairman Jerry Stephens for supporting the plan.
Campbell said many teachers made career changes in the process.
“We did it all without any teachers seeing a reduction in salary,” Campbell said. “And, there were no layoffs.
“Teachers made sacrifices, and they are to be commended for their part in the savings.”
School district leaders expect long-term financial benefits to be achieved from the restructuring.
“We are experiencing financial benefits,” Setzer said. “It’s not realistic to say we will achieve savings of $1 million a month over the entire year.”
Wooten is pleased, but cautious.
“While we will continue to see financial benefit, this does not mean we have money to spend,” Wooten said. “The goal is to eliminate spending from the local fund balance and create a financially solvent school system.
“The journey is just beginning.”
It took the public schools eight years to sink the general fund balance to a level so dangerously low that it could not cover one month of operating expenses. It will take time to return the balance to levels that are acceptable, Setzer said.
Another cost saving came from having far fewer substitute teachers. There were 169 substitute teachers in September at the beginning of this school year compared with 449 in May. The savings added up to $276,436.
After falling back on the Department of Public Instruction’s low-performing list for the 2018-19 school year, academic improvement would be most welcome.
“Every classroom in the county had a certified teacher to begin the school year,” Wooten said. “That has never happened since I’ve been with the school system.
“The focus now is on children. Having a certified teacher in every classroom will be a big positive.”
The county school district has been plagued by teacher shortages over the past 20 years. Short- and long-term substitutes have filled the gap and drained dollars from the PSRC’s coffers.
One additional piece of good news affects the entire county. Enrollment is up this school year by 73 pupils after several years and two hurricanes had depressed enrollment by 1,988 students.
Breaking an unfortunate trend is good news because the system is reimbursed per pupil, and the small increase will net more than half a million dollars over a year.
“We did not make the difficult decisions easily,” said Campbell, who is a 22-year veteran of the school board. “Hopefully, this is just the beginning.”