Terri Buckner: The cost of more money for schools

June 11, 2014 

At OWASA the budget process begins during the fall and early winter.

Staff members present regular planning updates to the board of directors to keep us abreast of any upcoming financial issues so that we are prepared to do our part in reviewing their proposals in January. Based on what we learn from their efforts, we make decisions about rates, salaries, and budget adjustments in the spring.

The school boards follow a similar budget process except for one major difference – they don’t set rates. The revenue side of their budgets come from allocations by the federal, state, and county governments.

For many years, school funding consumed the majority of the annual county budget. Schools benefitted while other service areas within the county, such as parks, social services, and arts and culture, took what remained. Then the commissioners stepped back and recognized that regardless of how large the funding allocation was for the schools, they would always want more. Not because school administrators are greedy but because they serve the community’s children, our most precious citizens, those for whom we can never do enough.

In May 2000, the commissioners imposed an informal restraint upon themselves by setting an education target allocation of 48.1 percent from the General Fund. They rarely hit the target exactly, but when they miss, it’s always in the schools favor.

When the state legislature began cutting education funding, the schools were able to use their reserve funds to make up for those cuts. Last year, the commissioners increased the rate for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district tax. But this year, the state cuts are even more extreme while the reserve funds are empty and raising the city schools’ tax rate again would create more inequity between the haves and have-nots in our county.

The commissioners faces a hard decision. Do they go back to spending the bulk of the county budget on education in response to the anti-education stance of the state legislature, or do they stand firm, requiring the schools to find ways to cut back?

Throwing out the 48.1 percent budget benchmark to increase funding for education means other government-funded services will be cut. During the years when the schools had their reserves to fall back on, the social services budget was decimated, cutting services to many of the children who attend our schools. As a community we will all be worse off if the commissioners don’t make up some of the lost Medicaid and social services funds with county tax dollars. Is having specialized school programs worth the cost of further reductions in the availability of social services to our most vulnerable citizens?

What about county staff? Our local government employees are not getting rich, and some of them are being physically taxed by the work they do. Roll-out recycling carts, which one frequent critic argues are a luxury, will reduce back-breaking, low-paid work for our collections staff. Should the county continue to pay toward workers’ compensation claims or take immediate compassionate action to reduce the physical impact of the job while also increasing efficiency?

The school boards and many parents expect county commissioners to make up the difference in what could be a $6 million budget shortfall for this year. As advocates that’s their roles, but in the economic and political reality of today, we need to work together rather than pit advocates for one service against those for other services. Children who don’t have proper medical care, sufficient food, and/or safe homes don’t come to school ready to learn.

As we adjust to the new conservative regime in Raleigh, we need work together to find equitable ways to meet the basic needs of all county residents. Schools are important, but fully funding their budget requests will have serious consequences, rippling through every resident of the county.

Contact Terri Buckner at tbuckner@ibiblio.org

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