Shortfall shadows schools

Published 1:00 am Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Beaufort County Board of Education on Tuesday will begin its discussion of the budget for the county’s public school system for the 2011-2012 school year č a discussion that comes amid possible cutbacks in all sources of school funds.

But even as its leaders face difficult choices and prepare for possible staff cuts, Beaufort County Schools may be better able to weather the storm than most because of better planning and consistent support from Beaufort County leaders, according to Superintendent Don Phipps.

Adding to the uncertainty in this year’s budget talks is an increasingly unpredictable political climate, Phipps told the Washington Daily News in an interview Friday.

The state’s Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue have staked out different positions on school funding. As a result, Phipps said, it’s harder to know what the future holds.

“We just don’t know what to expect anymore,” he said.

School board members are expected to begin a review this week of the predicted increases in costs such as heath insurance, retirement benefits and similar personnel expenses that are the responsibility of local school systems.

And they will continue to monitor developments in local, state and federal governments that will affect funding.

As school leaders talk about their choices, the top priority for the 2011-2012 fiscal year will be to preserve teaching positions and maintain class sizes, Phipps said.

“We’re always going to protect the classroom as much as we can,” he said.

But, he said, each year school leaders are presented with increasingly difficult choices.

“Every year they become more and more difficult,” Phipps said. “It’s like Patrick Abele (executive director for learning services) told the principals this week, there aren’t any pet projects anymore.”

Phipps added, “We’ve picked the low-hanging fruit.”

In 2010-2011, about $39.6 million, or about 57 percent, of the Beaufort County Schools budget came from state funds; about $15.8 million, or about 23 percent, from county funds and about $13 million, or about 19 percent, from federal funds. The remaining 1 percent of the budget came from fund balance.

In 2011-2012, Beaufort County’s schools face cuts in all three government funds.

The school system is expected to lose some $3.6 million in stimulus money provided under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. That money was used to supplement federal programs and to fill gaps caused by cuts in state funds.

Also in 2011-2012, the school system faces the end of an agreement with the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners that guaranteed a consistent source of school funds in recent years.

As a result, Beaufort County’s schools could see a decrease in funding from county government.╩

State funding for local schools is equally precarious.

State education leaders have told local school systems to prepare for 5- to 10-percent cuts in their state appropriations.

On Friday, Phipps said the local school system is currently basing its decisions on a likely 8-percent cut.

Meanwhile, the debate over the state’s share of school funds in 2011-2012 has moved to the state Legislature following the release earlier this month by Perdue of her $19.9 billion spending plan.

While that plan seeks to preserve teaching positions, it shifts to the state’s counties the burden of funding several parts of public education that were previously funded by the state. And it takes away from counties two important sources of funds that have been used to fund new school construction.

Perdue’s plan would use the counties’ share of lottery funds to pay for state education expenses and would eliminate the counties’ share of corporate tax proceeds for construction of school buildings.

Transferring those additional burdens to local governments would seriously affect Beaufort County’s ability to fund local schools, according to County Manager Paul Spruill.

On Friday Spruill said the proposed reduction in lottery funds would be “very damaging” to school funding in Beaufort County, in part because it would significantly reduce the money the county needs to make its debt payments on recent school construction projects.

“Beaufort County, like many counties across the state, borrowed money to make school improvements based on the availability of lottery funds to make those debt payments,” he said. “If those funds are not available, we will have serious funding problems.”

Beaufort County Schools has been tightening its belt and saving money for more than a year in anticipation of difficult times ahead, Phipps said.

“The public expects us to be fiscally responsible and we are determined to do that,” he said. “We want to make sure the money is used in the right way.”

Unlike those in many school systems, Beaufort County’s school leaders chose to bank $1.4 million in federal stimulus jobs funds that can be used in the coming year to help avoid staff cuts. School leaders have also worked to preserve as much fund balance as possible and have enacted a hiring freeze in recent weeks, Phipps said.

Although Phipps continues to hope that any staff cuts can be made through retirements and attrition, he has also taken steps to educate all school employees about policies governing reductions in force.╩

“There’s no point in painting a rosy picture if it’s not a rosy picture,” he said.