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Cumberland County schools asking state to change funding formula

This article was originally published in The Fayetteville Observer.

The Cumberland County schools need funding help from the state, officials from the school system and county government told members of the county’s legislative delegation Monday.

The pleas were made during a meeting to discuss legislative goals at the outset of a new session of the General Assembly.

During the meeting, school system officials asked legislators to push to restore lottery funding for school capital needs, revise the low-wealth school-funding formula, fully fund state-mandated education programs such as driver’s education and oppose shifting the cost of replacing school buses from the state onto the counties.

County government officials asked the legislators to support continued state funding of Medicaid, the current model of public mental health administration and restoration of state aid funding for public libraries and to work to reverse changes to a childcare subsidy program for working families.

School and county leaders decided to hold the joint meeting since county funds are a key piece of the school system’s operating budget – nearly 22 percent in 2013-14. State funds accounted for nearly 64 percent of the school operating budget, with the remainder coming from federal funds and grants.

“We share funding goals,” said Kenneth Edge, chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners. “We thought it would be more efficient to meet together.”

John Szoka, a Republican House member from Fayetteville who is chairman of the local delegation, said the joint meeting was “a great idea so we can hear one voice from the county schools and the county commissioners.”

Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Democrat from Fayetteville, and Sen. Ben Clark, a Democrat from Raeford, and Sen. Wesley Meredith, a Republican from Fayetteville, also attended the meeting.

Tim Kinlaw, the associate superintendent for auxiliary services, said the county school system has seen a dramatic dip in capital outlay revenues over the past several years. In part, he said, that’s a result of legislators diverting lottery revenues originally intended for school building funds. Annexations by the city of Fayetteville also cut into county sales tax revenues that went into the school capital outlay fund.

Kinlaw said the school system has $4.6 million in available capital outlay funds, which are used to pay for everything from computers to band uniforms to roofs.

Meanwhile, he said, most of the county’s schools are decades old and, without costly attention within the next five years, will start seeing major failures in roofing systems and heating and air-conditioning systems.

“We have got to come to a realization that we have got to come up with revenue to maintain our schools,” he said.

He said the situation would be helped if lottery revenues were used as they originally were meant to be. In the original law, 40 percent of the lottery’s net proceeds were supposed to go into a fund for school construction needs. That changed in 2010. Now the fund gets a flat $100 million – about 20percent of the expected net proceeds.

Kinlaw said counties have lost more than half a billion in school construction funds since the recession and have been forced to delay construction projects, dip into emergency funds or cut other funding.

Ricky Lopes, associate superintendent for business operations, said state funding for Cumberland County schools has not only decreased over the past several years, the cuts have been worse for Cumberland County than most other counties.

“Our funding decreased disproportionately to everyone else,” he said.

A key reason, he said, is the way the state determines low-wealth counties that are eligible for extra funding. The formula counts as income things like VA benefits and retirement contributions for federal employees. Under the formula, Lopes said, Onslow County is the third richest county in the state and Cumberland County is the fifth wealthiest – ahead of Wake County, which, according to the formula, is the sixth wealthiest county in the state.

Lopes said that description would shock most people. Anyone asked to come up with a list of the state’s wealthiest counties likely wouldn’t include Cumberland in even the top 20, he said.

The formula means Cumberland doesn’t qualify for funding for help low-wealth counties even as it ranks among the last in the state in what it is able to spend per pupil and based on adjusted property valuations per student.

The same is true for Onslow County, also heavy with federal employees because of Camp Lejeune.

As a result, he said, legislators are being asked to revise the low-wealth formula to help military-impacted communities.

Superintendent Frank Till Jr. has said the effort may be helped by the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown is from Onslow County.

School officials also are asking legislators to fully fund mandated programs like driver’s education or allow them to charge participating students the full cost of the classes – about $395 per student. Kinlaw said that’s what it would cost the school system if the state doesn’t come up with the funding that it has provided in the past.

County Manager Amy Cannon said the school system has little flexibility in adjusting to funding cuts and the county isn’t able to cover those gaps.

Along with the county’s request for continued state funding of Medicaid, its list of legislative goals mentioned support of efforts by the state to provide health care access for all residents.

Asked by Szoka if that meant the county supports expanding Medicaid access, Edge said he couldn’t answer that.

“There’s some for and some against,” with feelings falling along political lines, he said.

Cannon said there’s support for health care access for all but concerns about how to provide it.

Cannon said a change in the state’s child care subsidy program has created significant hardships for many working parents as well as for daycare operators and workers. She said about 750 children were dropped from the child care rolls as of Jan. 1, and officials expect additional drops of 150 per month between January and June.

Copyright by Fayetteville Publishing Co., 2015