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Finances influenced BCS decision to withdraw from NERSBA

Dual factors of declining student enrollment and budget constraints are the two key reasons behind the recent decision by the Beaufort County Board of Education to withdraw from participation in the Northeast Regional School of Biotechnology and Agriculture.

Members of the BOE took that step by unanimous vote during the group’s Feb. 20 meeting. While the 98 Beaufort County students currently enrolled at NERSBA will be able to complete their high school career there, Beaufort County Schools will no longer send freshmen to the school at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

According to BCS Superintendent Don Phipps, the school system lost state funding for approximately 4.5 teacher positions this year. This loss in funding comes as a direct result of declining enrollment at schools throughout the county, which may have been compounded by increased enrollment by Beaufort County students at NERSBA.

“When you start losing budget dollars, it affects you in many ways,” Phipps said. “One of the concerns we have is that if we have those students in the county, the dollars that are leaving would be able to stay. But it’s not just tracking dollar signs. We’re trying to make sure that we’re ensuring the best quality educational resources that we can give our students.”

WHERE THE CONVERSATION STARTED

While enrollment at NERSBA has been a topic of conversation for a number of years, the most recent discussion of NERSBA’s impact on the BCS budget began during the Jan. 23 meeting of the BOE.

During that meeting, Phipps shared figures on the percentages of Beaufort County students making up each of NERSBA’s grade levels as of Jan. 18, expressing concerns that BCS was bearing a greater proportionality at the school than other counties in the program. At the time, Martin, Tyrrell, Pitt and Washington counties each had students enrolled at NERSBA. For each student enrolled, school systems lose local and state dollars to the regional school.

“Beaufort County makes up roughly 30 percent of the NERSBA population,” Phipps told the Board during the Jan. 23 meeting. “The question that we’re dealing with is the amount of money that we send out of county … the concern I’ve got is our local money, right now projected in the financial statements, $112,000 local dollars are going to NERSBA. $395,000 went last year out of the state money. That’s over a half a million dollars.”

Phipps shared three options with the board during that meeting: continue with the status quo, cap the number of NERSBA students or decide to withdraw from the school. When asked, Phipps confirmed that $500,000 would roughly equate to 10 teacher positions.

Speaking of the school system’s financial needs in the grand scheme of next year’s budget, Phipps said he would be open to solutions to remain in the program, but that he felt his ultimate responsibility was to look out for the needs of BCS.

“You’re going to find out we’re chasing about half a million dollars in terms of where we’re at to break even,” Phipps said. “This is one piece that I think needs to be considered.”

According to minutes, the board continued discussion of the issue during meetings on Feb. 1, 6 and 13. While the minutes do not detail specifics of those discussions, NERSBA Principal Hal Davis did attend the BOE’s Feb. 6 meeting.

CUTTING TIES

During the Feb. 20 meeting of the BOE, three NERSBA parents, Aaron Carrow, James Rozene and B.J. Buttleshell, spoke in favor of keeping the partnership with NERSBA. Each outlined reasons for the board to keep the agreement in place, including a perceived lack of opportunities for some students that NERSBA serves and the positive impact that the school has had on their students.

Candi Tucker, a teacher at Washington High School, expressed concerns that funding going to NERSBA could provide more opportunities for Beaufort County students. Tucker went on to say that Beaufort County currently has programs in place that provide for students interested in agriculture and biotechnology.

Later in the meeting, the board took up discussion of the issue, with Phipps asking for guidance on how to proceed. Former BOE chairman Terry Williams said that the discussion of enrollment numbers at NERSBA has been an issue for a number of years. Williams said that Beaufort County’s enrollment numbers had “spiraled out of control” relative to other counties.

The board discussed a number of alternatives, including increasing Early College enrollment, an action taken during the board’s March 6 meeting, as well as the possibility of using the funds kept in the district to create classes that mirror the NERSBA curriculum at Beaufort Community College.

Board members in attendance voted unanimously to withdraw from NERSBA and to allow those currently enrolled to complete a transfer request to finish out their high school careers there. Chairman Mac Hodges, who serves of the NERSBA Board of Directors, recused himself from discussion and action. Barbara Boyd-Williams was absent from the meeting.

MOVING FORWARD

While the door may be shut to NERSBA for Beaufort County students for now, according to Phipps, the school system is working to open new doors for students who will not have the opportunity to enroll at NERSBA. These options include increased enrollment at the Beaufort County Early College High School and dual enrollment at Beaufort County Community College.

“When NERSBA was put together several years ago, our early college was just starting and the community college did not have an agriculture major like they do now,” Phipps said. “We feel like we can meet the needs of our students in our county without having to go outside of the county.”
Phipps pointed out that the BOE recently increased the freshman class size by 25 at the BCECHS, and shared that the school’s Career and College Promise program might provide opportunities for students to learn about agriculture and bioscience through BCCC.

During a phone interview, the NERSBA principal had nothing but positive things to say about Beaufort County Schools.

“Beaufort County Schools has been very supportive of NERSBA since day one,” Davis said. “They have helped provide resources and opportunities.”

Davis went on to compliment BOE chairman Hodges and Phipps for the contributions they have made as members of the board of directors. While Davis acknowledged the school system’s concerns on enrollment numbers from Beaufort County, he also expressed hopes that this is not the end of that relationship.

“We are still looking for a resolution,” Davis said. “Sometimes boards have differences of opinion. We’re still looking for a resolution, and hopefully we can find something to build on.”

According to minutes from a NERSBA board of directors meeting on Feb. 21, Davis offered to set a self-imposed cap of 15 students from Beaufort County, a suggestion that did not gain traction with the BOE.

These minutes further state that the school’s lawyer is involved and that the school is investigating its options to address the situation. The minutes indicate that NERSBA Board of Directors Chairman Julius Walker “stated that one of the concerns (of) Beaufort County Schools is that due to the budget crisis, they are looking at the possibility of having to close a school.”

Responding to the possibility of school closure, Phipps said there are currently no plans to close any schools in Beaufort County.