ELIZABETHTOWN — According to a study done by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, Bladen County spent about $1,130.13 per student during the 2011-12 school year. However, Bladen County Schools Finance Officer Sharon Penny said the number provided by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction places the actual figure spent that year at $1,158 per student.
The study claims the state average for that same year was $1,486 per student.
Bladen County’s spending per student, however, increased in 2012-13, said Penny. According to figures supplied to Penny by NCDPI, the spending per student increased to $1,675 and is projected to be about $1,651 in 2013-14.
When asked about the slight differences in figures, Penny said, “There is something DPI has in it (the spending per student) that they (the study) don’t.”
Penny added, “These (numbers) are local current expenses and a portion of child nutrition costs.”
Bladen County Schools Sup’t. Robert Taylor said that the spending per student “affects everything.”
He added, “We know the dollars we get from the state and federal government have been reduced. Whenever the numbers dry up or they are reduced, the only other money we have is our local dollars … the less you have on the state side the more you have to take on the local side.”
In Bladen County the property tax rate is 0.74 cents per $100 of property and, according to the 2013-14 budget, the county has a projected tax base of about $2.5 million for a projected available real estate wealth of about $522,780. According to the study in 2011-12, the county was ranked 59th and had a real estate wealth available to students of $516,036 — compared to Robeson County, which was ranked 100th with an available real estate wealth to students of $254,201.
Taylor said there are currently about 4,900 students enrolled in the county’s schools.
Local dollars are used to pay for things like utilities, facilities maintenance, technology and more, said Taylor. But having a reduction in dollars at the state or federal level and having to use local dollars to make up the shortfalls, can lead to such decisions as making reductions in teaching staff, said Taylor.
“You are forced to chose: Do you pay a light bill or reduce teaching staff?” said Taylor. “It makes it extremely difficult to do the work required with students if you don’t have adequate resources.”
Taylor said the reductions in funding make it difficult to provide such things as professional development for the staff. He added there is some funding from Race to the Top for that but it only goes so far.
“The impact is huge,” said Taylor. “The state pendulum is swinging back to the positive side.”
Taylor said the state is projected to have a $1 billion surplus, but the Department of Health and Human Services may be about $300 million short. Taylor said that would leave about $700 million for the state to use. He added there is some discussion in Raleigh about raises for state employees, which would include teachers.
“In order to get us to the national average, it would probably take more than the remaining $700 million,” said Taylor.
He added that, with the current financial situation, the school system is currently operating in a precarious position. In preparing the 2013-14 budget, the Board of Education requested from the county about $8 million. The county commissioners budgeted only $5.9 million for the 2013-14 academic year, leaving a shortfall of about $2 million, which Taylor said had to come from the school’s fund balance.
“The problem is we are having to use the fund balance (to make up budget shortfalls). We are at the point now where we have an extremely low fund balance,” said Taylor.
He said the economy is partly to blame.
“We know we have a very limited economy in Bladen County,” said Taylor. “We have to get those revenues from property taxes and sales taxes.”
In 2011-12, the study ranked Bladen County 69th in actual efforts to fund schools. According to the study, in 2011-12 the commissioners budgeted $5.7 million not too far from the 2013-14 budgeted amount of $5.9 million. In contrast, Robeson County ranked 99th in actual effort with the actual effort raking as $11.3 million was budgeted in 2011-12. Columbus County ranked 94th in the actual effort ranking with a budgeted amount of $6.7 million in 2011-12. Sampson County ranked 86th with $9.4 million and Duplin County ranked 87th with $8.8 million budgeted in 2011-12.
“Ideally we would need about $2,000 per student. If we were in that range it definitely would allow us to meet our needs,” said Taylor. “Again, that’s a tough thing to do.”
Taylor added that all of the problems will not be resolved by money alone, but there are some barriers that the school system can’t overcome without more funding.