LAURINBURG — Members of both the Scotland County Board of Commissioners and the Scotland County Board of Education agreed on Tuesday that any new guidelines for local funding to the county schools should insulate both boards from precipitous fluctuations in the funding level.
The liaison committee — school board members Jamie Sutherland, Darrel Gibson, and Pat Gates and county commissioners Whit Gibson, Carol McCall, and Bob Davis — was formed as a result of mediation between the two boards to settle the level of local current expense funding to the schools for the 2014-2015 school year.
The current school funding formula determines an absolute minimum dollar amount each year that the county shall appropriate from tax revenue and direct to the schools, leaving no room for leeway. Whit Gibson lobbied for limits to the change in funding from year to year, and proposed that any agreement the two boards reach be revisited every several years.
“One of the things about the current formula that I object to is, I think as a commissioner it’s difficult to have dictated to me the dollar amount that we have to pay without having some ability to negotiate,” he said. “… I think there ought to be a limit on how much it can go up or down in any given year.”
Sutherland agreed, proposing a maximum change of two percent either way, or about $210,000 based on the current year’s budget, as a palatable figure. This year, the school funding formula proscribed an increase of $832,000, or nine percent, in county funding to the schools.
“I would like to see some sort of percentage increase and decrease that is a maximum both ways in this thing,” he said. “Two percent, at least it gets us to a point that we know from this year to this year it can’t go but $200,000 one way or another and we’re not stuck in the position that we were in this year.”
Sutherland also pointed out that the county’s continued eligibility for state low-wealth funding is conditional upon the consistency of the its local per pupil expenditure, which cannot fall by more than 5 percent over a three-year period. For the current school year, Scotland County Schools will receive $3.4 million in low-wealth monies from the state.
The committee also discussed the widely-held belief that changes in the county’s tax rate are tied to changes in school funding.
“I think some people feel like our goal is to reduce the tax rate, whereas I, speaking personally, think our goal is to develop a funding formula that we can live with from year to year and make the process of funding our schools a more transparent, easier budget to achieve,” McCall said.
For any new agreement reached by the committee and adopted by the full boards to be valid, the existing general statute will have to be either amended or repealed.
“We don’t need a general statute for Scotland County to determine how we fund our schools,” said McCall.
Sutherland agreed, given local implementation of an overarching agreement to guide school funding decisions and both boards don’t negotiate from scratch every year.
“I don’t have a problem with it not being (a general statute) as long as the concept remains the same,” he said. “The concept I think is great; we don’t have these fights every single year.”
Whit Gibson proposed that the committee accelerate its meeting schedule so as to reach a final agreement by the end of the year, before the terms of current board members end. Both Darrel Gibson and Sutherland may be replaced by election in November and school board member Paul Rush and county commissioner John Cooley did not run for re-election.
The committee first met in July and has scheduled monthly meetings through March for the purpose of revisiting the general statute that currently determines local school funding each year. The next meeting is set for Sept. 16 at the A.B. Gibson Center.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169. Follow her on Twitter @emkaylbg.