ELIZABETHTOWN — The Bladen County Board of Education and Board of Commissioners gathered on Tuesday to search for ways of solving the challenging budget restraints facing both boards.
If it was an effort to reach across the table with thoughtful, restrained ideas that would best accommodate the district’s 4,738 students, the get-together was only half successful.
The first portion of the 90-minute meeting was centered on the needs of the school district, primarily with regard to positions that are facing elimination for the 2014-15 school year. But things soon turned snarky as members from both boards began to debate the school district’s capital needs and the failed effort to pass a .25-percent sales tax hike in May.
Jimmie Smith, chairman of the county commissioners, opened the meeting by saying it was an opportunity for everyone to voice their concerns and ask questions.
“It’s a tough budget for us this time around,” Smith said. “We know the schools have needs. We want to give and we hope we can help.”
Schools Sup’t. Robert Taylor then layed out the Board of Education’s position for the upcoming school year, saying the district had all but used up its fund balance to cover the current school year’s shortfall in order to keep positions in place.
“This year, we don’t have the fund balance to fall back on,” Taylor said. “We know we have to cut 60 positions, and we’ve already cut 16 people — primarily in the custodian, clerical and teacher assistant areas.”
Taylor added that the county was allotting $6.182 million for the school district, but the actual needs are at $7.8 million. He said the main priority for the board was replacing some of those positions being cut, which would cost the school district about $630,000.
“We know the county can’t give us all the money we would like because, in just a few years, your fund balance would be depleted,” Taylor said. “And we still don’t know what the state will do.
“Our plan is to put together a budget with the worst-case scenario in mind,” he added, “with the hope we can add back positions later.
“It’s not the best way to move forward,” Taylor said. “But it’s the only option we have right now. We may not have turkey on the table, we may have a pack of crackers, but we will operate the best we can with whatever we have available.”
Taylor also said that, even when positions are cut, the school district must pay things like unemployment, health-care costs and other items. He also said that the cost of everything continues to go up.
The discussion soon turned to teacher raises, and Commissioner Delilah Blanks questioned the local policy of giving raises across the board when the state allows raises for state employees.
“I can envision that, at some point, the local dollars will run out,” Blanks said. “I never realized we were obligated like that.”
Taylor explained that school employees had seen only one raise since 2008, and that was a 1-percent raise in 2012.
“And it’s just been a local policy that, if teachers being paid by state dollars are given a raise by the state, then employees being paid through local dollars (property taxes) are also given a raise.” Taylor said.
Though Blanks again gave her disapproval of that policy, Commissioner Charles Ray Peterson was understanding of it.
“I would hope that, if the state gives a raise to teachers, then it’s the right thing to do to pay our other employees,” he said.
The turning point
Despite the best efforts of a few at the table, the discussion was suddenly turned toward the failed referendum in the May 6 primary election for the passage of a .25-percent sales tax hike that, if passed, would have raised about $450,000 to be used for much-needed school repairs.
Alan West, vice-chairman of the school board, got that ball rolling.
“I think the best route for us would be to get the quarter-cent sales tax hike back on the ballot (in November) and get it passed,” he said.
That unleashed the ire of Blanks.
“Until you get a plan in place to build a new school in the other half of the county (in East Arcadia), you will get no sales tax. And if I’m lying …” she said. “A school for the little children needs to be built in that part of the county. They’ve been neglected long enough.”
Ophelia Munn-Goins, chairman of the school board, agreed.
“And it’s not just East Arcadia. It’s Booker T and Clarkton and Plain View and Bladen lakes,” she said. “I’m all for the sales tax, but voters need to see this board get serious about helping all areas of the county. They OK’d a sales tax hike when the two new high schools were built with the promise they would get money for other schools, and they are still waiting.”
“That’s on you, the school board,” Peterson said. “We (the commissioners) have nothing to do with how you spend your money.”
West said he felt sure there was a plan for consolidating East Arcadia, Booker T. Washington and Clarkton with a new school on N.C. 211 between East Arcadia and Clarkton. Taylor said such a plan wasn’t possible , given the school district’s debt through 2018.
“Because of our debt, we are in no position to fund the building of a new school,” Taylor said. “But if a sales tax hike gets passed, we can start (the consolidation of the three schools) tomorrow.”
Things took another turn downhill from there.
“I can’t believe this county is going to let East Arcadia determine what happens in the rest of the county,” Peterson said. “There’s no votes down there, people. Let’s just get it done.”
Peterson also hinted that it was Blanks and the efforts of the Bladen Improvement Association which caused the demise of the sales-tax referendum.
Blanks and Peterson then traded several jabs before Taylor interjected his thoughts on a new school.
“If you ask me, the time to build a new school is now, rather than wait,” he said. “The cost may be $20 million now and $40 million in 2021.”
As a means to bring the meeting to a conclusion, Smith asked that anyone who hadn’t had the opportunity to speak do so.
“We’ve talked about budget needs and capital needs, yet when the sales tax issue is brought up, it’s shot down,” said Roger Carroll. “Nobody should dictate where that money goes. It would go to children all over the county.”
Berry Lewis agreed, saying the county knows what the school district’s needs are. He also added that passing a sales-tax increase would be a big help.
Wilber Smith pointed out that there was too much division among both boards, and that “it’s time we work for the best interest of our children. Let’s give our children an opportunity.”
Glenn McKoy agreed.
“There is no unity. Let’s work together,” he said. “The bottom line is we need to save those positions.”
“Every one of us here was elected by the people to represent everyone in the county,” said Russell Priest. We need to forget about our own individual agendas and do what’s right for all the children.”