Local officials discuss school security, teacher salaries
The Lee County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education met Thursday night to talk about a subject that has divided them in recent years: money.
Specifically, the two boards held a rare joint meeting to discuss various issues before the county, which provides about a fifth of the district's funding, begins its budget process this spring.
Last year the commissioners cut $500,000 — money that had been used to pay teaching assistants and tutors — from the approximately $15 million the county had given the district, in order to lower property taxes. Thursday's meeting began with the threat of further cuts hanging in the air.
The meeting came just days after the commissioners passed a resolution vowing "to exercise even closer scrutiny" of the district's budget because, the commissioners said, the school board joined a lawsuit against the state about a new private school voucher program without asking the county's permission first. Commissioners, in a 4-3 vote with Republicans in favor and Democrats against, also formally apologized to statewide leaders for the school board's participation, calling it an embarrassment.
The resolution also alleged the lawsuit will waste local tax dollars, while the school board has denied that and pointed out that they won't be paying any legal fees.
However, the lawsuit never came up, and the discussion Thursday was much more cordial than the language of various politically charged resolutions the commissioners and the school board have passed in recent months.
But that’s not to say there were no disagreements.
The issue of student resource officer funding arose again, with Commissioner Jim Womack reiterating his concern that the schools have not contributed as much of their at-risk funding — which was used for SROs before — this year as in the past.
“We have to do everything that's possible to protect those children,” he said, later adding: “I would hope that the school board would join us in making sure that every available dollar” is spent on security. He asked school officials to at least explain how they were using any funds not given to security which were used for security in the past.
School board member John Bonardi said a good portion of the funds are being used to plug holes caused by the commissioners' $500,000 cut to the district last year.
He also noted that the state law which took control of the SROs away from the school last year required funding to be provided by the county and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, and that school officials have secured a $120,000 grant to help the county with funding.
The boards agreed on an official arrangement to combine funding to hire, train and equip seven more officers — which would allow every school to have a permanent armed guard — at an estimated cost of $486,000 per year.
The only other official action taken Thursday was to allow the district to begin using N.C. Lottery proceeds to replace the heating and air conditioning systems at East Lee Middle School and West Lee Middle School.
County Manager John Crumpton said the lottery funds won't be supplemented with any county funding because the county is struggling to repair its own buildings. He said economic growth has been stagnant in the past four to five years — but that projects do indeed still have to move forward.
"Like with Lee Senior, we don't want renovations and repairs get to the place where we have to replace the school," he said, referring to the high school's recently completed $20 million renovation.
The rest of the meeting was for information purposes only, so members of the two boards could ask each other questions, make suggestions and defend any controversial positions. The only uproar came when Commissioner Kirk Smith wondered why schools didn't just save money by providing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to low-income students on subsidized lunch programs — which in Lee County is two-thirds of the student body. Many in the audience reacted with gasps of outrage, and the topic was quickly changed.
Smith later asked how the Affordable Care Act will affect the district's benefits plan. Tammy Magill, budget director for Lee County Schools, said it's still largely unknown but that there are now more categories they have to cover and plan for. Lynn Smith, chairman of the school board, said the only negative he knows of is that substitute teachers will have their hours limited at 29 per week.
Superintendent Andy Bryan then inquired about the county raising its local supplements for teachers and for other employees by 1 percent each. Those supplements have remained at 7 percent and 1 percent of the state base salary, respectively, since 2005. Womack asked why Lee County Schools has a higher supplement and a higher teacher turnover rate than some other low-income counties around the state.
"We have the unfortunate geography of being near (Wake County)," he said, noting that public school teachers there can receive supplements of up to 17.5 percent. The 1 percent raises locally, Bryan said, would cost around $375,000 per year for teachers and $100,000 for other employees.
The boards also discussed Central Carolina Works, a program which would put guidance counselors in every high school to help students enroll in free classes at Central Carolina Community College.
Womack and Kirk Smith both said they would like assurances that students would be steered toward high-skill manufacturing, medical sciences and other such courses — and not low-skilled, low-wage careers like barbering or auto work, Womack said. Commissioner Robert Reives took a different angle, saying that in this down economy he would be glad for students to learn job skills in any field they're passionate about.