Funding questions loom for Lee commissioners, school board

Jun. 07, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

Politicians of all stripes, both locally and at the state level, have routinely agreed North Carolina teachers should be paid more. Yet the issue continues to be fraught with controversy.

Locally, one Lee County commissioner recently suggested undoing last year’s three-cent property tax rate reduction. Doing so, said Robert Reives, would allow the county to give local teachers — and all other school employees — a one percent raise. It would also let the county buy eight vehicles for the sheriff’s office and give county employees a 1.8 percent cost-of-living raise.

In total, the school employee raises, county employee raises and law enforcement vehicles would cost a little more than $1 million. The county estimates that every cent in property tax rates is worth about $423,000.

Reives said at a Monday night meeting that the county needs to provide those raises and vehicles, and that with expenses already increasing because of a decision last year to switch control of school resource officers from the schools to the county, he’s worried about dipping into savings. But more tax revenue, he said, would prevent that.

“All we’re doing is digging a deeper hole — not just for this existing board, but for future boards and for our own staff,” he said.

Reives initially tried to get the commissioners to vote on restoring the property tax rate Monday, although Board Chairman Charlie Parks convinced him to wait until June 16, when the county will hold its final budget meeting. Parks said he can’t tell how the board will vote, but that he’s not sure Reives’s idea will hold much sway with the board’s Republican majority.

“We do want to keep the taxes low, so I don’t know we’ll do the three-cent increase,” Parks said in an interview earlier this week. “If there’s things we can cut, we’ll look at that. But we’ve cut about everything we can.”

Parks said there will be no public hearing before the 5 p.m. budget meeting June 16, although the public will be able to speak before the board reconvenes to vote at its regularly scheduled meeting at 6 p.m.

“We’ve had some amicable discussions at our budget meetings,” Parks said. “I’m hoping it stays that way.”

The school district’s concerns aren’t limited to teacher pay. District officials have requested millions of dollars for a new elementary school, among other building projects, and some have expressed concern that those dollars would be put to a public vote, as a bond, rather than funded outright by the county.

“We’re at a point now where we don’t know where to put students, so as a board we need to continue to put pressure on getting the funds to build an elementary school,” John Bonardi told his fellow school board members at a meeting Tuesday.

Another school board member, Tamara Brogan, agreed, pointing out that one new school will only get capacity at local schools down to 100 percent. To plan for future growth, she said, two new elementary schools are needed.

The Senate’s plan

Touching on statewide issues, the school board also briefly discussed a controversial plan from the N.C. Senate that would give every teacher an 11 percent raise — about $5,800 for the average teacher — but require them to give up their tenure in order to get the money. It also would cut funding for teaching assistants in half and reduce funds for some non-teaching positions.

Superintendent Andy Bryan said for Lee County Schools specifically, in addition to the sizable teaching assistant cuts, the district would lose $38,000 from the central office and $207,000 from the budget for school nurses.

The school board voted unanimously to allow Bryan to write a letter to state leaders, criticizing the Senate plan. Bryan, however, emphasized that the proposal is still far from official.

“The governor’s budget and Senate budget, I think most folks have recognized they’re not aligned with each other,” Bryan said. “So we’ll see what the House does.”

In Chatham County, the response to the Senate’s budget did not leave any room for interpretation.

“Anyone who believes that this budget and the required reductions in funding will result in a positive impact on our students’ academic achievement is altogether wrong,” Superintendent Derrick D. Jordan said in a written statement.