Question of funding

Our view

June 17, 2014

Anyone who has been taking notes during the county’s budget process will in the coming weeks need to ready a few more sheets of loose leaf.

Following Monday night’s decision by Scotland County Commissioners to deny the Scotland County Board of Education’s request for an increase of $892,000 in local funds, by passing a budget amendment against a tax increase needed to pay for it, no one seems quite clear as to what will happen between now and July 1 — but we can guarantee it will be noteworthy.

As school board chair Charles Brown said on Tuesday, the two boards have always been at sort of an impasse when it comes to the decades-old, state-mandated school funding formula — “but it has never gotten to this point.”

Whether it moves to file a lawsuit or try its hand at negotiating, each an acceptable action under the law, we doubt that the school board, which faces near certain cuts at the state level, will take the county’s decision lying down. We also doubt, giving the tone of county conversations so far, that school board members could have been surprised at the refusal to meet their request — and we suspect a plan is already in the works, as the time each board has before approving a 2014-2015 budget is quickly ticking away.

Since being informed on May 21 that the school board would request the full $11,032,227 as calculated by the funding formula, commissioners have called the amount “unreasonable,” and, saying that such an increase could only be funded by a property tax increase, have successfully polarized the majority of local residents into two groups — those willing to go to any and all expense for education and those unwilling to put any more burden on those already paying the highest county taxes in the state.

A small third faction also exists, those who believe the extra money lies in the places that school administrators are unwilling to look — their own paychecks — or in “fat” that exists in the county’s budget. Still others say that the county’s high expenditure on our schools doesn’t pay off in increased student performance.

Commissioners have said that discussions need to be held on how to escape the “outdated” law, but no school board member facing statewide cuts to education is willing to have that conversation. Whether the county should be expected to make up for the state’s shortfalls remains in question.

School funding has floated near the $10.1 million level in recent years, with commissioners saying that amount has prevented them from paying county employees their due. In a recent study, the county was given an “A” for effort when ranked by its spending levels vs. its actual ability to pay such an amount — No. 1 in the state, with 74.7 percent of revenue per student going back to the school system.

With the No. 2 county, Gates, coming in at just 54.6 percent, it’s not likely Scotland County’s grade will fall considerably in the near future — even if the funding formula requirement isn’t met in full.