As it has been throughout the 2012 campaign season, the county’s school funding formula was again a popular topic among candidates at this week’s election forum at the city courthouse.
Moderated by St. Andrews University political science professor Larry Schulz, the forum featured candidates for the school board and the 25th North Carolina Senate District.
Exchange Editor Scott Witten was joined by WLNC radio newsman Sandy Callan in forming the local media panel responsible for asking questions of the candidates.
It was Callan who first raised the issue of the funding formula, which has been a lightning rod for critics of overspending by the county. The formula, which was devised decades ago in an attempt to develop uniformity in school spending in the county, requires that the county government fund the school system at a level equivalent to the average spent in similar counties in the state.
With increasing demands on the county’s budget in the down economy, board of commissioners Chairman Bob Davis said recently that he has approached the school board asking that the formula be put up for referendum.
Asked if he would favor a referendum on the school floor, Republican NC Senate Candidate Gene McIntyre expressed support for the referendum, calling it an “atrocious” fact that 52-percent of the county’s property taxes are spent on education in the county.
“I would do the research, get all the facts, and sit down with both (board of commissioners and school board) chairs to find a solution that is in the best interest of the county,” McIntyre said.
Proposing a non-intrusive course of action, McIntyre’s Democratic opponent and former Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin said that he would rather stay out of county finance if elected to senate.
“I don’t think it’s my place as a senator to tell the county commissioners and the board of education how to fund their schools,” McLaurin said. “If (they) can come up with a compromise, I would support that and help with that.”
McLaurin said that he would be willing to help facilitate such a compromise.
“I have a lot of experience solving problems involving two opposing sides … (and) it’s just a matter of finding common ground. If a referendum is what is felt is the best way, I would support it.”
McLaurin and McIntyre found common ground themselves during a discussion about the economy, with both agreeing that education and regulatory reform are among the most important components of job growth and economic recovery.
Promoting his three point approach to recovery, McLaurin said that he would prioritize hiring of North Carolina workers for work being done inside the state.
Calling the program “NC First,” McLaurin said that he would develop “made in North Carolina incentives” that would make it fiscally sensible for companies to hire local workers.
“In Scotland County, I know we have a lot of people working who don’t necessarily live in this state … (and) we need to change that,” McLaurin said.
According to McLaurin, his “extensive business experience” as president and CEO of Swink-Quality Oil would also prove vitally important if elected.
“North Carolina is a big business, and we need people with business experience to take a look at the budget and find efficiency.”
Touting his own experience as a an educator and county commissioner in Stanly County, McIntyre said that he would work to secure tax cuts and improved early education as a senator.
“We have 66 percent of fourth graders that are not proficient in reading … and it is outrageous that we end up double-teaching these students once they get to college,” McIntyre said. “We need to expand vocational training so that high schoolers that want to go straight into the workforce can.”
Critical of McLaurin’s recovery plans, McIntyre said that the word “investment” used by McIntyre is actually code for higher taxes.
“We have to do these tax cuts and initiate regulatory reform, and that should be the priority,” McIntyre said.
Four of the candidates for the three Stewartsville Township seats on the school board in attendance, including current school board members Terence Williams and Jeff Byrd, found themselves collectively in opposition to a referendum on the school system funding formula with one exception. School board member Darwin “Duke” Williams did not attend.
Long time Scotland County schools administrator Rodney Hassler said that he would favor a referendum like the one being proposed by the board of commissioners.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, school board vice chair Terence Williams said that he is “totally against” a referendum.
“Anything that would compromise the school system, I am against,” Williams said.
Veteran educator and Scotland County native Pat Gates was less staunch in her opposition to the referendum, but questioned its timing.
“In a time of need, it might not be the best idea. The jury is still out on that one,” Gates said.
Familiar with the challenges facing local educators with technology integration and curriculum adjustments being handed down from the state level, Gates said that there may be some difficulties ahead for local schools. Overall, however, Gates remains positive about the future.
“Times are changing so quickly … but we need to be able to say that we have a strong education system in Scotland County (in recruiting business to the area),” Gates said.
For Williams, school system success is only a matter of making sure Scotland County’s children reach their potential.
“The smartest minds are not in China, or Finland or anywhere else, they are right here in Scotland County … and this current school board, if you allow us to stay for for more years after Nov. 6 … (is) going to change the landscape of education as we know it.”
According to Hassler, changing the school system is actually the easy part.
“Improvement is much harder. That is why I am running as a catalyst for improvement.”
Hassler believes that the teaching personnel and leadership staff are already in place to see the school system improve drastically.
Among Hassler’s concerns is school system efficiency and spending.
“I do not see where increases in funding have led to increases in per pupil funding,” Hassler said.
In the opinion of Byrd, Scotland County should not only be striving for success relative to other low wealth counties, but should look to “keep pace with counties like Wake and Mecklenberg.”
“My goal is that every kid can get a quality education … and that every kid leaves ready to work or to go to college.”
A representative of Democratic US Rep. Larry Kissell also spoke at the forum.