Schools, county should meet in boardroom, not courtroom

No one who has been following along was surprised when on Monday the Robeson County Board of Commissioners adopted a budget that kept flat local funding for the Public Schools of Robeson County.

The schools had asked for a pie-in-the-sky increase of more than $17 million, a strategy that was questionable from the start and has now failed. The commissioners spent much of their June 11 meeting dishonestly defending their efforts to support education, saying the per-pupil ranking of next to last in the state was misleading because of all the low-wealth money that the system receives.

Apparently that $6 million or so that was handy when the Angel Exchange building was being discussed could not be provided to the school system, which needs additional money for a lot of reasons, including putting a resource officer on every campus. That there isn’t one is a dangerous roll of the dice.

The public, despite clamoring on social media for additional funding, makes it easy on the commissioners as not one person spoke at a public hearing on the budget. Would their comments be ignored? Most likely, but that is not an excuse for keeping a seat — and explains why our commissioners do as they please.

Chairman Raymond Cummings, as has been his habit when budgets are adopted, pointed out there would be no tax increase. That’s nice, though sometimes a tax increase is warranted in order to meet local needs.

The property tax rate almost always drops following a revaluation, which provides higher values. Revaluation is what has taken the county from a tax rate of 99 cents for every $100 of property in 1995 to the current rate of 77 cents, which is still about 25th highest in North Carolina.

Although county officials say values are flat, it is safe to say that most have gone up since the last revaluation in 2010, meaning a majority of property owners will be paying more in taxes in 2018. The 2018-19 budget includes an additional $2 million in ad valorem taxes, and that is coming from someone. Keeping the tax burden for most property owners the same would have required a modest tax cut. So Cummings’ boast about taxes not going up is deceptive at best, purposely dishonest at worst.

The commissioners on Monday also heard an update on the school system’s request that a bonds referendum be placed before the voters as a potential revenue source to build new schools. One thing is clear following a presentation by Kellie Blue, an assistant county manager: That won’t be happening soon.

The Board of Education had identified as much as $250 million of construction needs in the system, but was asking for the sale of about $50 million in bonds to at least have money to begin working through the list of needs. Blue said the Local Government Commission, whose mission is not to allow local governments to bite off more expense than they can chew, would want more specifics on the projects, and that a spitball approach by the schools is not going to work.

The challenge before the school board would be sufficiently whittling down the to-do list. That is how great — and obvious — the system’s capital needs are, and at the top of the list is a new school.

We know that the school board and the commissioners did not meet in advance of the adoption of the county budget, which has been the practice in recent years, even if it has not resulted in substantive increases in funding. So there was nothing to signal a meeting of the minds as the county worked on its budget.

It’s way past time for that meeting happen, and the egos need to be checked at the door. The best place to talk is a boardroom.

The courtroom is another place.