Contrary to popular belief, the school floor had nothing to do with integration of the schools. Rather, the school floor funding formula came into being when the city of Laurinburg school system merged with the Scotland County School System. The leaders of Laurinburg insisted that if Laurinburg was going to give up control of education to the county that the county commissioners had to agree to provide per pupil funding at the state average of per pupil funding.
Back in the 1960’s, educational funding was quite simple. Funding came from two sources; the state of North Carolina, which back then gave to each school district the same amount of money per pupil (State Funding) and the second source was each school district could supplement this per pupil funding by whatever amount its taxpayers agreed to (local funding). Scotland’s School Floor funding law said that each year, the average amount of local funding throughout the state’s 114 school districts would be calculated and our local funding would be that average. In other words, the purpose of the school floor was to ensure that our students were at the 50th percentile of per pupil funding. It was a reasonable concept then and, most people would probably agree, it remains a reasonable obligation to ask of the Scotland County taxpayer even today.
But then how has is it that in the most recent school year (2015-2016), Scotland’s per pupil funding is not at the state average of per pupil funding? The state average of per pupil funding for 2015-2016 was $8,888 per student. Scotland’s was much higher than that, it was $10,347 per pupil. This amount placed Scotland as the 29th highest funded school system per pupil in the state, which puts it in the top 25 percent (out of 114 school districts). This is far above the 50th percentile which the creators of the school floor had envisioned.
It has happened because over the past 50 years since the school floor was created, there has been widespread recognition that poor counties need help with school funding. In the late 1960’s, the federal government started funding education, which was heavily weighted to poor counties (currently Scotland gets $1656 per pupil from the federal government while a rich district like Chapel Hill gets just $535 per pupil). North Carolina, which used to fund every student in the state the same amount back when the school floor was created, over the years has recognized that poor counties need help. To this end, the state of NC, through separate funding programs for disadvantaged students, low-wealth county supplemental funding, and children with special needs funding, gives much more to children from poor counties (Scotland gets $6,788 per pupil from the state while Wake County gets only $5,349 per student).
This extra state and federal funding has led every other ‘poor county’ to reduce ‘local’ funding, while still arguably providing a reasonable amount of money for their students. The Scotland County School Floor, however, does not factor these changes in(so our local school funding is still 57th out of 114 school districts). If the Scotland County commissioners were to write a check to the schools that guaranteed our students were at the state average of total per pupil funding (which was the intent of the authors of the school floor), rather than the state average of just ‘local’ school funding, the check would be for $2.2 million, far less than the $10 million the commissioners currently pay the schools. If we all agree with the authors of the school floor, that our students deserve the state average of total per pupil funding, the amount the schools would get would be $7.8 million dollars less than what they are currently getting. If that savings were all applied to lowering the Scotland County tax rate, the highest in the state at $1.01, it would drop to approximately $0.54.
There has been only one study that has attempted to figure out if the school floor funding law has improved educational outcomes here in Scotland County. It concluded that it did not.
My purpose in writing this is not to even remotely suggest we cut school funding. I am a product of the public educational system, attending public elementary, middle and high school and getting a degree from a public university, just as my wife has. I think teaching is one of the most important, and underpaid, professions. Rather, my purpose is to show how the Scotland County taxpayer is paying vastly more for education than what the writers of the school floor ever intended.
But, even more importantly, it is essential that the school board and the commissioners understand these issues. The school board seems to want the public to be thankful that the schools are taking $250,000 less than they have a right to by the school floor funding formula. But do they and the commissioners not understand that the schools are getting $7.8 million more per year than the writers of the school floor intended? Do the commissioners and board of education not understand that the school floor has survived all these years because the public was led to believe that without it school employees would lose jobs and teachers get their pay cut?
Where is the outrage that with the superintendent’s school consolidation plan he will eliminate 40 of the 61 school jobs that are locally funded? Why are they not questioning why the 20 school principals are getting local supplements six times higher than they get in Hoke or Robeson while the teacher supplements are lower than in those neighboring counties?
In conclusion, the NC School Forum has determined that the Scotland County taxpayer makes a greater financial effort to fund the schools than any other taxpayer in the state. The Scotland County taxpayer agrees to do this with the hope of better student outcomes and to have more and better teachers. They do it so the extra money goes to the classroom and children, not to out of town contractors and school administrators. It is time for the county commissioners and the school board to understand this and act accordingly.
Matthew Block serves as mayor of Laurinburg. He writes a bi-weekly column on the city and municipal issues.