School funding remains an issue

Published 5:41 pm Friday, May 19, 2023

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GATESVILLE – Facing the possibility of decreased supplements from the state compounded by mandated increases in salaries and benefits, Gates County Public Schools looks to local government for help.

The county’s board of commissioners attended the May 8 meeting of the local school board where the two entities engaged in a discussion about the school system’s financial plight, which is could be as much as $887,000. What that final dollar amount may look like will not be known until the state decides on Small School and Low Wealth County funding supplements.

What is known right now is that Gates County Schools is requesting $3,840,200 from the county’s coffers for Fiscal Year 2023-24. That marks an increase of over $800,000 from current year funding.

Gates County Schools Superintendent Dr. Barry Williams said the extra funding is needed because of the possibility of less funds from the state due to a decrease in enrollment since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Additionally, the school district is dealing with increases in some salaries due to the mandated federal minimum wage as well as mandated increases to employee retirement plans and increases in health care costs.

He said the school district is working with the county to acquire one-time funding ($800,000) to increase the fund balance.

“We are hopeful that the [state] General Assembly will provide relief for small and low-wealth schools through pending legislature to address some of our budget requests,” Dr. Williams said at the May 8 meeting. “We are appreciative of the county commissioners for taking time to attend the board of education meeting and hearing our requests.”

Dr. Williams later told the Gates County Index that the amount of funding the school system receives from the state will determine the next steps in this funding request from the county.

Currently, Gates County Schools receives $1,500,000 annually in Small School funding and $766,000 in Low Wealth funding as part of its financial package from the state.

Dr. Althea Riddick, chair of the county commissioners, noted that the $800,000+ increase requested by the school board would require, on face value, a nine-cent hike in the county’s property tax rate.

“We are all experiencing the inflation and economic pressures in our new normal, post-COVID world, especially at the grocery store, and our schools are not immune from these challenges. The upcoming budget process will bring many challenges,” Riddick stated.

“It is our understanding that Dr. Williams has been working very hard with the leadership of the NC General Assembly to change the formula for Small School funding and early reports indicate that there could be as much as a 40 percent increase Gates County when the state’s Biennium Budget for FY 23—25 is approved, generating an estimated $600,000 in additional funds for our school system each year,” Riddick continued. “The question for Gates County leaders is what happens if the state funds do not increase as projected?”

Riddick stressed that the commissioners has had no prior discussion about this topic. She added that the commissioners have made no funding decisions for next year, and the County Manager has not presented a proposed budget as of this date. That budget proposal is expected to occur at the May 24 meeting of the commissioners.

“It is not anticipated that any decision will be made this evening [May 8], and it is our expectation that the School Superintendent and the County Manager will continue to examine the options for both boards to consider,” Riddick noted.

“Dr. Williams and Mr. [Scott] Sauer [County Manager] have had several meetings and have drafted a preliminary Memorandum of Agreement to consider if the county decides to provide a one-time nonrecurring appropriation to the board of education,” she added. “The preliminary draft agreement provides for reversion of the county funding if the state’s budget includes the new level funding ($600,000) for the Small School appropriations for Gates County Schools.”

Riddick stressed that regardless of the outcome of the state budget, the commissioners have a fiscal obligation to both protect the taxpayers, and provide adequate funding for all programs and departments, including support for the Gates County Schools.

“I think we can all agree that we need to support our public schools in Gates County, and we need to get this right—the students, parents, teachers, and administrators deserve our best effort,” Riddick concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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