Every election season, the topic of how Scotland County’s public schools are funded rears its head among candidates and voters alike.
The Laurinburg Exchange plans to present a three-part series examining the history of the funding mandate, the effects of the legislation today, and what the future may hold for this contentious issue.
Better known as “the school floor,” the law mandates a formula to be used in determine Scotland County’s annual funding of its public schools.
When enacted in 1963, the law indexed the county’s minimum contribution to the schools to the average local current expense expenditures of all North Carolina public school systems.
The law was originally passed by the North Carolina General Assembly concurrently with a merger of the Laurinburg City schools and Scotland County schools. The school floor was imposed to prevent the county from underfunding the new system.
“Back in the sixties, when we merged the schools in Scotland County, that was put in place for a reason,” said Clint Willis, who served two terms on the Scotland County Board of Commissioners. “They needed a law rather than relying on the people who were elected to make decisions.”
But Willis said the effectiveness of the law has passed.
“It may have been fine back in those days, but over the years it’s just gotten out of hand,” he said. “It just keeps growing and growing, and it really puts a burden on the commissioners… How do you fund the health department, how do you fund social services? It doesn’t give us enough dollars to do all of those things.”
The retired politician is not alone in his opposition. The school floor’s history has been a contentious one between the school board and the county Board of Commissioners.
In 1981, the Scotland County Board of Commissioners requested that the General Assembly introduce legislation enabling a referendum to repeal the school floor’s funding provisions. The Board of Education countered by passing their own resolution requesting lawmakers not introduce legislation for a referendum. No further action was taken.
After the Board of Commissioners appropriated no funds for capital outlay for the 1988-1989 fiscal year, the school board sought dispute resolution through the Clerk of Superior Court, resulting in $100,000 in county appropriations for capital outlay.
Commissioners have also tried to negotiate with the school board to accept less funding than specified by the funding formula.
The school board denied such a request for the 2005-2006 fiscal year, but for the 2009-2010 year school leaders did agree to accept $340,000 less than mandated. That deal eventually fell through when the Board of Commissioners failed to reduce the property tax rate to reflect their savings.
An amendment to the school floor went into effect for the 2002-2003 fiscal year, setting the county’s contribution at $8.7 million for that year. The amendment provided that in succeeding years, local current expense expenditures would be determined by factoring in the average percentage of increase or decrease in expenditures in North Carolina’s low-wealth counties as well as a ratio reflecting increase or decrease in average daily membership.
“The county commissioners are the only ones who have taxing authority,” Willis said. “I think for transparency reasons that, if we allocate the money, we should get to decide how it’s spent. That’s what always bothered me: that the county had to write a blank check.”
Support for the floor
Proponents of the school floor assert that every penny directed to the schools is indispensable, especially in the face of budget cuts on the state level.
“Now that we are having so many cuts from the state for education funds, the school floor is something that we’re going to continue to need to sustain our education system,” said Mary Evans, a former school board member.
Evans, who served from 2006 to 2010, said that it is unlikely that the school floor could be amended or eliminated without sacrificing the quality of the education provided in Scotland County’s public schools.
“That was the purpose of it all to start with: to maintain classroom sizes and to ensure that all schools are given the same educational opportunities,” Evans said. “The school floor has been an issue and it will continue to be an issue because it’s something that some people would like to change.”
Evans attributes the call for change in the school floor law to citizens’ desire for lower taxes in a county with one of the highest tax rates in North Carolina.
“People do want tax relief and I can understand that, but that’s not looking at the bigger picture: educating our children,” said Evans. “It’s going to take that money to do that right now. Maybe we can look at it a little further down the road, but right now the ‘tax break’ is our children’s education and quality classroom environments - we’ve got to make that sacrifice.”