On West Boulevard in Laurinburg, nestled among the brightly colored campaign signs, you will see Dan Wilson’s pledge to do something about the school floor.
Wilson, a candidate for state Senate, is not the first politician to bring up the subject and — given the funding formula’s long history — unlikely the last.
As the 50th anniversary of the funding mandate approaches, one has to wonder what the future holds for the school floor.
Those opposed to the school funding formula say the mandate will eventually “break the county.” Supporters say that with the state of the economy, now is not the time to tamper with it. Both sides say that the school funding formula, a Scotland County institution, is likely here to stay.
“I benefited from the school floor, graduating from Scotland County Schools, so is it fair for me to tell future generations that they shouldn’t benefit from it?” said school board member Darwin Williams.
Others believe that, although the funding formula places a significant demand on the county, no dollar spent on education is wasted.
“If we don’t invest it in education, we’re going to invest it somewhere - why not invest it in providing our children with a quality education?” school board member Darell Gibson said. “I wish we were able to put more into providing resources for our kids, and I’m not talking about high-paid administration. I wish more of the money was spent on the kids’ level.”
Raw dollar amounts support the idea that Scotland County is spending more on education per student than similar North Carolina counties. According to officials, that money helps to fill the deficit in some students’ lives outside of school and has appreciable returns in the long run.
“We have never established what constitutes soundness in a child for education to be received by the child,” said Terence Williams, the school board’s vice-chairman. “We have to be sure that the social ills are being taken care of. It is expected that the school kind of supplement everything that children are not getting at home or within their particular community.”
Sen. Bill Purcell said that Scotland County’s public schools receive $600 to $800 per student in state funding by virtue of the county’s sizable local contribution.
“As a low-wealth county, we get special funding for our public schools based on maintenance of effort in public school district,” said Purcell, a Laurinburg Democrat. “We get more per-pupil funding than surrounding school districts because of maintenance of effort. If we do away with the floor and reduce our funding in the school system, we not only lose the floor money but we lose state funding coming to Scotland County.”
While officials acknowledge the difficulty of sustaining the level of funding required by the mandate, the pool of potential solutions is sparse.
“I agree that the school floor is an ever-growing baby – it constantly has its mouth open every year and we’re going to have to feed it,” said Darwin Williams. “But I will not turn against the kids of Scotland County, and if we remove the school floor, if that is detrimental for our kids, I will not vote for removal, I will not vote for abolishing it. Until you come up with a better solution as far as local funding, it’s what we have.”
The mandate’s elimination would require consensus from the county and school boards, as past amendments to the formula have involved a joint request from both boards.
“It’s going to take four commissioners and four school board members to agree on terms to abolish it for it to be abolished,” said Commissioner Clarence McPhatter. “It’s not only us - people put the pressure on us, but the only way you can get it abolished is if both boards agree.”
As the funding formula is a North Carolina statute, the action of Scotland County’s legislative delegation would be required for its amendment or elimination. District 25 senatorial candidates view the issue with differing perspectives. Democrat Dan Wilson has pledged to eliminate the property tax designated explicitly to fund the school.
“I value education more than anything, and I will do whatever it takes to ensure that we are providing an outstanding education for our students,” Wilson said in an earlier interview. “My first piece of legislation introduced in the General Assembly will be the repeal of the school floor tax.”
Gene McLaurin, who is running for the same Senate seat, has a different opinion.
“To change it, we need input from the local governing boards, and I certainly am open to working with this issue, but I don’t think it’s the role of the legislature to tell the citizens of Scotland County how to fund their schools,” said McLaurin, also a Democrat. “This is legislation that they asked for and the legislators in Raleigh granted their request.”
In the event that the school floor were to be eliminated, the county’s burden would not necessarily be alleviated, officials say.
“I personally don’t think that we overfund our schools,” said McCook. “If we didn’t have some type of funding formula, then we wouldn’t see a significant decrease in the funding for our schools.”
Gibson, who is serving his first term on the school board member, disagrees.
“Right now, we have so many needs in the school system that it would be hard for me to imagine us investing less than we are,” Gibson said. “We have TAs not being paid, and buildings that need improvements. I think we need every dollar we get.”
The school floor, as recent years have proven, is subject to change, and officials say that when compromise is economically feasible for the schools, it will happen.
“This board has come to the table on several occasions and we’ve actually gone through that process of making sure that it was negotiable,” Terence Williams said.
“I don’t want to see education getting the short end of the stick, but everybody has to give some in this recession that we’re in,” said Commissioner Joyce McDow. “The school floor is not going to be done away with overnight - we’re going to have to work on a budget with the school floor.”
Gibson said that he and his fellow board members are “open to the conversation, but not at the expense of kids losing the quality of their education.”
“We would have to have these conversations about what that would mean, what that would look like for the school system,” he said.
The longevity of a school floor in Scotland County is credited to unwavering support from many local citizens.
“Personally, I’m proud to live in a community that has a commitment to the education of its children,” McCook said.
“We have the only monument to a public educator in the state of North Carolina,” said Purcell, referring to the William Graham Quakenbush monument outside of the Scotland County Courthouse. “Support of education has been a big factor in this community from its very beginning.”