The Transylvania Times -

County Upset At School Funding Critics


May 10, 2018

Transylvania County commissioners expressed frustration Tuesday that they are accused by some of not supporting the school system, while they also approved motions asking for, among other things, more details about capital spending in the schools.

During their regular meeting Tuesday, commissioners approved two motions: one asks the school system to provide by May 15 its complete and entire budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, while the other asks for the school system to have its capital outlay requests laid out in categories and for the requests to be prioritized.

State laws require county commissioners to fund facility needs for public schools and school systems to submit capital needs and their budgets by May15.

On Monday night, the Board of Education approved its budget, including capital requests, for the new fiscal year (see related story above).

According to the N.C. Public School Forum Report, Transylvania County is currently ranked as providing the fourth highest per student funding among the state’s 100 counties. And, according to prior Forum Reports, was the fifth highest for several years. The county also noted that its capital spending per student is ranked as the 41st highest, while the county has the 11th lowest tax rate in the state.

Before approving the motions, commissioners talked about wanting more “details” on how the school system decides what to fund in its capital budget and what it eventually does fund.

Commission Chairman Larry Chapman said that he had seen in the past items listed on the capital needs as “critical,” but they are not completed and then show up again the next year.

“I’m sure there were legitimate reasons on why things were moved,” he said, while also calling to see “as much detail on all of these expenditures.”

Chapman said he was “more concerned” about big-ticket items.

He said if the money is not spent on a particular item, then the county needs “to know why,” emphasizing again that capital funding is the county’s responsibility.

He talked about being “accused” of not supporting the school system.

“I’m kind of tired of hearing that when we see these numbers,” he said.

It’s “disconcerting,” Chapman said, when looking at how Transylvania compares to others in the state.

“We need as much detail on this, and we need to know when priorities change,” he said, noting that he doesn’t want to “micro-manage” but the commissioners need to know about the big items.

It would be “helpful to see a prioritized list,” Commissioner Mike Hawkins said.

Commissioner Page Lemel said she’s talked to commissioners and managers in other counties.

“We are all being squeezed, and we are all very angry at the state of North Carolina’s education funding because they have been shifting more and more of the burden to keeping the operations going to our local education administrations,” she said.

She said she’s seen other counties’ “reaction” to the suggestion that they are not supporting schools specifically around capital needs.

She said some of the county governments are now assuming “full responsibility” for school capital funding.

“The counties appropriate the money for school capital,” Lemel said. “It is held in a line item in the county’s budget in the county’s finance office.

“The school capital improvement plan becomes part of the county’s capital improvement plan, because for significant endeavors, large projects, you need to plan for these expenses to happen.”

She said that in Dare County bills for school capital improvements come to the county, which pays for them, allowing “what they thought was going to be happening is actually happening.”

Lemel said she doesn’t feel commissioners and the school system are “speaking the same language,” regarding capital expenses.

She said she doesn’t’ regard a $1,950 paint job, for example, as a capital expense.

Also, she said, she analyzed three years of capital requests and outcomes and “struggled to follow the money.”

When accused of “woefully underfunding” the schools, she said, it is “hard not to take that personally.”

Lemel pointed out that she, Commissioner Jason Chappell and County Manager Jaime Laughter all have children in the local school system.

“We believe in the public schools,” she said. “We want our schools to succeed. We are not going to do something that will jeopardize the quality of education in Transylvania County.”

In 2012, Lemel said, $17 million in capital needs were identified in the school system and the county since then has provided $9.4 million in capital support.

“It’s hard to see where the money went,” she said. “And when I look at $5,000 for warm water in TC Henderson’s elementary classrooms…and then we carpet the office at another school for $13,000, I don’t understand why we didn’t put in the warm water for the little children to wash their hands over the carpet.

“It’s my fault that we didn’t do that because capital is our responsibility as county commissioners.”

State law, Lemel said, allows counties to fund capital in the school system a lot more “specifically.”

“I’m ready to stand up and be as specific as possible funding capital,” she said, suggesting then the public will be able to better see what the county is funding.

Lemel said in the five years she’s been a commissioner she’s only received local current expense requests from the school system and never a complete budget.

“(There are) too many critical projects that keep getting pushed aside,” she said, later adding she doesn’t know what the county is paying for in regards to the school capital budget.

“And that’s my failure,” Lemel said. “Hold me accountable. Let me be accountable, and I will work hard.”

Commissioner Kelvin Phillips agreed with Lemel’s comments, saying during his research of capital requests he was “not getting numbers to match.”

Phillips has two grandchildren in the school system and he, too, was concerned about being accused of not providing adequate funding.

Hawkins said the county, in regards to its various projects, is now providing individuals reports, including photographs.

He wondered whether the school system could take the same approach.

Laughter said the county could request the school system to do so, but at this late stage in the fiscal year it would be better to start it next fiscal year.

Hawkins asked Lemel to what level did she want to tie funding. Would it include things such as buying band uniforms, he asked.

Lemel said the county could work with the school system to work out what exactly is considered a capital expense.

She said Dare County and its school system have come together and now speak “the same language,” creating a line-item fund in the county budget for school capital, and they are having more meetings between the school board and county.

The “challenge,” Lemel said, is “maximizing our efficiencies.”

“Efficiency is not cutting a budget,” she said. “It’s realizing the maximum opportunity for limited resources.”

She mentioned the county’s 41st ranking for capital funding per students and wondered if the county needs to study to see if it can do “a better job in our annual capital spending.”

Hawkins backed the creation of a committee, with two school board members and two commissioners, to figure out a way to deal with capital needs.

“Regardless of the outcome of the bond, the needs still exist,” he said.

Hawkins also noted that the Board of Education is not saying the county is not funding the school system enough, but “(that sentiment) is out there.”

Chappell agreed there was a need for more information to understand the different capital categories and the prioritization.

Lemel then made the two motions, which were unanimously approved.

Chappell said that “part of the frustration” occurs because the General Assembly, unlike the county and the school board, don’t have established deadlines for their budgets.

It means for the county and the school system it’s a “best guess” on what funding they will receive from the state.

During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, School Board member Alice Wellborn addressed commissioners.

She noted the school board had approved its budget and prioritized the capital needs.

She too emphasized that the school board has no control over the state budget and must make “guesses” as far as what the state will provide with cost-of-living adjustments, retirement and health insurance.

The school board, therefore, cannot provide a “complete and accurate budget” by May 15, she said.

The school board would “love” to have a committee of school board members and commissioners talking about the school budget process and to be “collaborative,” Wellborn said.

“We know you are interested in the children of Transylvania County just like we are,” she said. “You have responsibilities and we have responsibilities, and our responsibilities are as important as yours, and we are elected, just like you are, by the exact same people.”

In other action:

•Commissioners approved a proclamation designating May 20-26 as Emergency Medical Services Week.

•The Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada awarded the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting to the Transylvania County Finance Department for its comprehensive annual financial report for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017.

To receive the certificate, a government must publish an easily readable and efficiently organized comprehensive annual financial report.

•David Carter, Dr. John Folger and Daniel Cobb were re-appointed to the Transportation Advisory Committee.

Richard Houck was also appointed to the committee. Dawn McCall was appointed to the WCCA Board of Directors, and Madeline Dierauf was appointed to the county’s Juvenile Crime Prevention Council (JCPC).

•Commissioners approved the allocation of $104,212 from the NC. Department of Public Safety, Division of Juvenile Justice, to be awarded to the JCPC.

Commissioners’ next meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on May 21 in the county administration building.


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