School task force highlights state funding flexibility

By: Lindsay Marchello - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — Flexibility was the word of the day in a meeting of the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform.

Several superintendents and local education agency finance officers Wednesday, Jan. 31, shared recommendations with legislators on reforming the school funding formula. These included increasing flexibility on how allocated funds are spent in regard to meeting school districts’ unique needs.

The task force was created last year to address what many say is an outdated model on school funding. Legislators have until Oct. 1 to send a final report with proposed legislation to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.

Three superintendents and three LEA finance officers offered recommendations on how the school funding model should be reformed to address challenges unique to each school district. These included counties and districts with decreasing populations, those lagging to recover economically, and those with a high percentage of impoverished students.

“In the great state of North Carolina, we cannot allow zip codes to dictate a child’s access to success,” said Superintendent Rob Jackson of Edenton-Chowan Schools.

Representatives from the N.C. Association of School Administrators and N.C. School Boards Association weighed in. The NCASA suggested slowly phasing in changes to a new funding formula to ensure a smooth transition.

“Flexibility is important. It is important as we try and meet the needs of our learners, meet the needs of our schools, and meet the needs of our communities,” said Stephen Fisher, superintendent of Cleveland County schools.

Fisher said flexibility in funding allows school districts to meet the specific needs of large and small schools. Jackson and Superintendent Tim Markley of New Hanover County Schools echoed the Cleveland superintendent’s views about flexibility.

Other concerns included addressing numerous allotment revisions, which superintendents and finance officers say slows the budgeting process. Carol Hendron, chief finance officer for the Rowan-Salisbury school system, said the district received 29 allotment revisions. Jackson said his district received 59 revisions.

“Imagine planning a budget for a year, and 59 times you receive an email that says you don’t have quite as much money as you thought you had,” Jackson said. “Particularly when that email arrives late in the school year when most of our funding is going into staff and teachers and at the end of the year you realize they are taking back some of the money, that makes it difficult.”

Another common recommendation included the idea of untangling funding for charter schools and school districts. Many presenters advocated funding charter schools via direct allotment, meaning charter schools would avoid the school system in getting funding. County commissioners would sign the checks instead.

Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, said he was for as much flexibility as possible, but he wondered whether it could result in a lack of money in certain areas.

“With flexibility comes a lot of responsibility,” said Fisher. “When you have that flexibility you have the responsibility to make sure that if you move funds and do different things and add teachers this year, is that going to meet the needs for next year?”

Fisher said increased flexibility could cause problems, but it also opens the way for innovation toward meeting the diverse needs of students and schools.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, said the school districts had more funding flexibility five years ago. But because they mismanaged money, the legislature took it away. He wants to return more flexibility to the school districts, as long as they maintained responsibility for spending decisions.

“I’m perfectly willing to give you that because you superintendents know more about where that ought to go than anybody alive,” Tillman said. “They pay you well to know that.”

Tillman said the legislature shouldn’t micromanage what school districts need to spend in each category, but he said they must be held accountable.

The chairman of the task force, Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said reforming the school funding model is a long process and many voices, including charter schools, have yet to be heard.

“We need to make sure we have as much appropriate information as possible,” Horn said. “What rock have we not looked under? There are a lot of dogs in this fight.”

Lindsay Marchello

Carolina Journal