Lee school board discusses budget requests, superintendent search

Mar. 19, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

When the Lee County Board of Education met Monday night to request an additional $3.28 million from the county in next year's budget, officials did so with one caveat: They don't expect to actually get any of that money.

"What they're looking at, best case scenario, is to probably keep (funding) at the same levels," said Superintendent Jeff Moss, who announced later in the meeting that he expects his new contract as superintendent in Beaufort County, S.C., to be approved tonight.

School board Vice Chairman John Bonardi put it more bluntly: "We're not going to get anything that we're requesting, and on top of that, we're probably going to get cut," he said.

Board members and district staff who helped put the budget requests together are already anticipating a $500,000 cut from the Lee County Board of Commissioners that would result in the elimination of 14 teaching assistants, plus support for tutoring and graduation ambassador programs. The county isn't officially allowed to vote until April on the cut — which was discussed as a way to lower the county property tax rate by 1 cent per $100 of value — although the board's majority spoke favorably of the proposed cut. Combined with a redistribution of sales tax revenue, the measures would pay for a decrease in the county's property tax rate from 75 cents per $100 valuation to 71 cents per $100 valuation, which would save a homeowner, for example, $60 in taxes on a home valued at $150,000.

"For $60 on a house, we're going to lose jobs," said board member Mark Akinosho, to which Moss jumped in to point out that it's actually more like $15 since three-quarters of the county's savings would come from the sales tax redistributions.

Akinosho continued on, saying public schools are trying to train future lawyers, doctors, journalists, county commissioners and others, and that they deserve funding. He also expressed frustration that U.S. students consistently rank only about 20th in the world, falling behind many Asian and European countries.

"You are investing in the human capital of the future," he said of education spending.

Board member Tamara Brogan said she would gladly pay a few extra dollars in taxes each year to know that students get the best education possible.

"There is no do-over," she said of coping with cuts. "We can't go back and give them the help they're losing now."

Akinosho said the quality of education in Lee County could very well decline in the future, to which Bonardi replied: "I don't think the majority on that board is really interested in public education."

Added board member Linda Smith: "I just don't see the mindset there that they understand 21st Century learning and the progress we need to make."

Almost all of the money the schools are requesting from the commissioners would go toward educators, mostly in the form of teaching assistants and curriculum coaches, which were eliminated several years ago. Less than 10 percent of the requested funds would go to non-personnel expenses, and most of that is to cover the rising costs of cleaning supplies and to start a summer science camp for rising 4th, 5th and 6th graders.

Last year, the school district received $15.34 million from the county, which was the same amount it received in the 2011-12 budget. And although those two years were the highest levels of county funding ever for local schools, the amount of per-pupil funding actually dropped since the student population increased. Recent census data shows that Lee County has been the 10th-fastest growing county in the state since 2010.

If the county does level cuts on top of the $500,000 discussed last week, school board chairman Lynn Smith said nothing is off the table. Personnel would be last, he said, although he did note that they also make up most of the district's expenses.

In addition to the expense requests, the board also approved a letter asking for close to $1.5 million in capital projects, including heating and air units, athletics projects, extra bathrooms at overcrowded elementary schools and video cameras to beef up security on several campuses.

Finally, Moss told the board they should begin discussing how to find a new superintendent. After some discussion, the board decided to approve a national search, with the logic that local candidates will probably still rise to the top but there could be somebody who's not local yet who is the perfect fit.

The board unanimously agreed, with the hope that a search firm will be chosen by the group's next meeting, on April 9. Lynn Smith said he already had four firms contact him to offer their services, including both the one that found Moss for Lee County and the one that found him for Beaufort County, S.C. Moss said the process took about three months between when he was contacted and when he was approved, so the board could have a replacement by the middle of summer if everything goes smoothly.