Crowd urges school funding

Published 10:46 am Wednesday, March 24, 2010

COURTLAND—A standing-room-only crowd of parents, teachers, principals, administrators, school board officials and — intermingled with them all — students attended Monday night’s advance public hearing for the fiscal 2011 Southampton County budget.

Their unified plea to the Board of Supervisors: Find a way to fully fund the school division.

But doing so will be a difficult challenge for the board, thanks to a perfect storm of $2.5 million in state revenue cuts, including $2.3 million to K-12 education, a loss of more than $1 million in local revenue and unavoidable additional expenditures of $725,000.

“This will be the 15th budget that I have prepared, and it is by far the most challenging,” Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson said.

According to Johnson, the school division has submitted a budget request of $31.052 million for fiscal 2011. That amount includes funding from the federal and state governments.

Although the school division’s request is $743,044 — or 2.34 percent — less than the previous fiscal year’s budget, Johnson said, “Full funding of their request will require a substantial increase in local funding above last year’s appropriation. The reason that the local funding would have to increase by $913,675 is to mitigate dramatic state funding reductions.”

Johnson said that to fully fund the school division, Southampton County would need to allocate $11.68 million. That would be an increase of $913,675, or 8.4 percent.

“Compounding the issue is the fact that local revenues are expected to decrease $1 million in fiscal 2011,” Johnson said, adding that the shortfall would be driven by several factors, including an almost 12 percent decline in personal property values, a 12 percent increase in participation in the land use program, tax relief for elderly and handicapped residents that has more than doubled, and a loss of machinery and tools tax revenue from the idle International Paper Co. Converting Innovation Center.

Southampton County School Superintendent Charles Turner expressed a somber tone during the public hearing.

“We are in a different state,” Turner said. “What has taken place in the Commonwealth is the funding level for schools has gone back to the year 2006. It’s gone back that far. As the funding level has gone back to 2006, the mandates are still at 2010. Something does not add up.”

Turner added, “Yes, the state has said that they will waive some (mandates). However waiving (the mandates) still does not deal with the fact that we have nowhere to go.”

The superintendent stressed that the only place the school board could make additional cuts was in personnel, something he and all of the other division supporters wanted to avoid.

“We have very little (to cut) because we have saved and we have been good stewards of the funds,” Turner said. “We have nowhere to go in the budget. There is no instructional money to take. I can’t do anything with operations because materials and supplies and utilities are all going to continue to go up. The only place that we can cut is personnel.”

Turner said teachers in the division have gone some time without raises, and next year would be no different.

“The budget that we have presented contains no luxuries, but it contains necessities,” Turner said. “Our staff has been wonderful. They come to me and ask how they can help. They have not complained about the fact that they have not gotten a salary increase. We’re not talking about salary increases. What we’re talking about is keeping people working. We’re talking about jobs. We need your help. We thank you for what you have done for us. If we work together we can keep people working and we can provide a quality education to our young people.”

Denise Bunn, who represents the Newsoms District on the Southampton County School Board, also addressed the supervisors.

“We don’t want to cut teachers,” Bunn said. “We don’t want to increase class sizes. We really worked hard and we cut our budget. In medical terms, if you cut too deep, you bleed. In the school system, if you cut too deep, you bleed student achievement.”

Bunn added: “Look at all of the workers that are out there right now competing for jobs. If any time in our county’s history we realized that we have to provide these kids with the education to compete — statewide, nationally, globally — it’s now.”

Maria Frazier, a junior at Southampton High School, said she’s afraid that if funding for the school division is cut, music and art programs will be reduced or eliminated.

“Being in the art program has allowed me to hone my skills to the point where now I actually have the opportunity to get some of my artwork shown in an art show,” Frazier said. “If the budget is cut and we’re taking a lot of the money from art or band, how many more students are going to get the opportunity that I had?”

Johnson said he plans to present the county board with the first draft of the fiscal 2011 budget on April 7. The board has budget work sessions scheduled for the next two weeks — on April 14 and 21 — and could finalize the budget as early as its April monthly meeting, which will be April 26. According to Johnson, a public hearing could be scheduled as early as May 17.

The county budget for the current fiscal year is $56,885,219.

Southampton County Board Chairman Dallas Jones, who represents the Drewryville District, thanked everyone who participated in the public hearing at its conclusion.

“We’re going to do everything we can to help everybody, not just the schools,” Jones said. “We have done it before. We’re going to do the very best we can.”