Board nearly derails agreement|Schools helping county overcome shortfall in budget

Published 8:53 pm Friday, October 2, 2009

Staff Writer

To the surprise of the board’s chairman who helped negotiate the agreement, a majority of the Beaufort County Board of Education on Wednesday nearly derailed an agreement with Beaufort County over the 2009-2010 fiscal year budget because of concerns with the agreement’s influence over future years’ funding,
It took almost 30 minutes of arm-twisting by Chairman Robert Belcher and prodding by school administrators to get four members of the school board — Teresa Banks, Eltha S. Booth, E.C. Peed and Cindy Winstead — to rethink their initial decision to reject the agreement.
After a 4-3 vote to defeating the agreement and a unanimous vote several minutes later by the four dissenters to reconsider their decision, the board voted unanimously to return $246,000 to county coffers to help the county balance its budget.
Belcher and members F. Mac Hodges and William S. Warren voted in favor of the proposal on its first consideration. Mike Isbell abstained, saying he could not read the agreement because of the small type. Board member Barbara Boyd Williams did not attend the meeting.
“I knew it was going to be a tough sell, but I thought I had sold it,” Belcher said in an interview Thursday morning. “I was surprised, however, when it was voted down.”
A multi-year agreement obligates the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners to increase local current-expense funding for the schools every year from the 2007-2008 fiscal year to the 2010-2011 fiscal year. But it also calls for the commissioners and the school board to “revisit” the most recent local appropriations to the school system in the event the state holds back money designated for public school capital expenses.
That agreement called for a $543,000 increase in county appropriations to the county school current expense fund in 2009-2010 over the previous fiscal year. The amount the schools are expected to refund the county is about 40 percent of that increase.
The $618,542 in cuts imposed on Beaufort County by the General Assembly when it passed the state budget in August included $380,000 in state-shared corporate income-tax funds, allocated to counties based on average daily membership at local public schools, which the state appropriates to counties for school capital expenses.
Beaufort County uses this money to pay a portion of the nearly $2.8 million in debt from a schools-construction bond.
Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill, during a public hearing on the budget last month, told the commissioners that he had identified $309,705 either from new expenditure cuts or new appropriations to help make up for the shortfall but a $308,837 gap remained.
During that meeting, county commissioners appeared to be targeting the school board to help close a substantial portion of that gap.
Wednesday night, Belcher told the school board that he “had some concerns” about the wording of an amendment to the multi-year agreement under which the school board would return money to the county, but “at this late date, I didn’t want to change the wording.”
The amendment specifies that “in the event the state-shared Public School Capital Outlay (ADM) Monies are unavailable to the County in FY 2010-2011, both Boards will revisit the terms of the original agreement including this amendment on or before September 1, 2010.”
Belcher read a statement, to be included in board minutes and in a letter delivered to the county Thursday morning, that said the school board would be less willing to return money to the county next year.
“We anticipate the full amount of the agreed-to increase in current expense to be honored by the commissioners unless the fiscal picture that the commissioners face in September of 2010 is direly and significantly worse than it is currently,” he said. “This gives the county manager ample time to plan a budget that will honor the agreement.”
In discussion before the initial negative vote, Belcher and interim Superintendent William Rivenbark tried to allay board members’ concerns about future budget cuts.
“We’re still in control. All the agreement says is if the ADM money is not there, we will meet and talk about it,” Belcher said. “(The county) can’t unilaterally take it away.”
Rivenbark told the board, “‘Revisit’ is a nebulous term at best.”
When it adopted its budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the school board set aside a contingency fund of $289,024 to deal with anticipated cuts in state funding. However, the state has told the schools it will need to set aside about $52,154 of that money to cover a shortfall because of increases in state employment benefits and cuts in school transportation funds, leaving about $236,870 in reserve, according to Rivenbark.
The school board agreed Wednesday to use its reserves and cut its maintenance budget by $9,130 to repay the county.
The Board of Commissioners was expected to approve an amendment to its budget and the transfer of funds from the schools to the county at its meeting Thursday night. The county was expected to plug the remaining $62,837 hole in its budget from increased property tax collections as a result some new discoveries in county property values, according to Spruill.
In other business, the board:
• set graduation dates and times for four county high schools as follows: Beaufort County Ed Tech Center, 11 a.m., June 12; Southside High School, 7 p.m., June 15; Northside High School, 7 p.m., June 16; Washington High School, 7 p.m. June 17;
• approved new criteria for volunteers who agree to serve as mentors for students working on Senior Projects. Under the new criteria, parents have to option to sign a form if they want the mentor to undergo a criminal background check. The move is expected to make it easier to recruit mentors to help students as the system expands Senior Projects to all high schools this year;
• voted to require students to pay fees associated with Advanced Placement exams. Students currently enrolled in Advanced Placement courses will be informed of this requirement.
• denied a request from Bath Elementary School to dispense medication in individual classrooms instead of a central location as required by board policy;
• approved a formal request to the N.C. School Boards Association asking the association to pay the board’s legal fees for its petition to the N.C. Supreme Court asking the court to revisit its August decision ordering a retrial of the school board’s lawsuit against the county;
• set its next meeting date and time for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 26.
• decided to allow The Gideons International to provide Bibles and other religious literature to students who ask for such material. The material would be available at booths in the schools.