Moore County Schools will seek a $2.3 million increase in County funding for the coming fiscal year, if the Board of Education approves the budget proposed by Superintendent Aaron Spence. The Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget on Monday, March 24, at 6:00 pm.
"I have heard it said too often that more money can't solve your problems," Spence told the Board during its regular Monday, March 10 meeting. "We cannot move the needle without continued support. We have to have a commitment from our community if we are going to transform our schools."
The County is providing the schools with $26.6 million this year; that number includes $24.5 million in funding for operations, as well as $712,000 in capital expenses and $750,000 for the district's digital learning initiative. Also included is $680,000 that is passed through to the County's charter schools.
Not included in that total is debt service — the payments the County makes on borrowing to finance school construction. Those payments are made directly by the County, not funneled through the MCS budget and will amount to $5.6 million this year.
The amount of money the County provides to MCS has been relatively flat, at $26.3 million, since 2011. This year, the Commissioners provided an additional $375,000 to help fund the drive to put laptops or tablet computers in the hands of every student.
MCS leaders and the County's finance team have held a series of meetings in recent weeks, working toward a more coordinated approach to budgeting for the schools.
MCS Chief Finance Office Mike Griffin praised that process during the budget presentation.
"The County has shown a tremendous interest in understanding our problems," Griffin said. "We want to work with them to address a funding formula that would address a variety of issues." That includes creating a dependable formula for county operational and capital funding.
Griffin said he hoped the negotiations would bear fruit in time for the Fiscal Year 2014-2015 budget cycle but, if not, was confident they would by the following year.
Higher costs, less money
Griffin told the Board that MCS finds itself squeezed by rising costs and flat or declining revenues.
Although the number of students the district serves has grown by five percent in the last five years, state funding has dropped over the same period, and state funding per student, which was $5,508 in FY 2009, is $5,200 this year -- and expected to drop to $5,048 next year.
In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, the federal government rode to the rescue with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly called the "stimulus," which nearly doubled the district's federal funding for FY 2010 and FY2011.
MCS' federal revenues rose from $5.5 million in FY 2008 to $10.8 million in FY2010. Knowing that revenue boost was likely to be short-lived, MCS stockpiled the cash, pumping the districts' fund balance from $4.2 million in 2008 to $12.4 million in 2012.
The goal was to use that savings account gradually over a number of years, but state budget cuts and rising expenses have resulted in MCS spending more than half of its fund balance in the past two years. The total at the end of this year is expected to be $5.7 million.
"That is a non-sustainable use of fund balance," Griffin told the Board.
Rather than continue to shrink the MCS fund balance, the Superintendent's budget proposed both cutting expenses and requesting more support from the County.
Griffin told The Times that MCS is taking a cautious approach to its projections of state funding, because estimates are not yet available from the state.
"Since the last two budgets (2012-2013 and 2013-2014) have actually included unforeseen reductions, we feel that holding the fund balance for now is the conservative position we must take," Griffin said.
MCS expects to end this year with total expenditures of $102.7 million; the budget for next year trims that back to $100.4 million. The Superintendent's budget shows state funding dropping from $64.8 million this year to $64.4 million next year, due to the expiration of one-time grants.
Griffin outlined proposed expense reductions in his presentation to the School Board. They include trimming thirty-five positions through attrition — that is, by eliminating vacant positions rather than implementing layoffs — which will save $1.6 million.
Among the strategies for accomplishing that is increasing class sizes in grades 4-12. The state sets maximum class sizes in the lower grades.
Investments with impact
While Griffin handled the hard dollars and cents of the budget presentation, Superintendent Spence highlighted the investments in student achievement that the budget makes possible, as well as the impact those investments are having.
The district has made a substantial push to increase student reading skills, providing instructional coaches, the leveled literacy intervention program, and testing that produces data teachers can use to guide their work with individual students.
MCS has a number of programs that aim to boost the achievement of specific student groups — or individual students. The Moore Success program targets underachieving students and "lifts them up," Spence said. Other programs target children with mental or physical obstacles to learning, students who are still learning English, and academically gifted students.
Classroom teachers are also supported, through mentoring, coaching, a summer teaching academy, and a variety of professional development opportunities.
Finally, the district has embarked on a major digital learning push that will, within the next two years, put a computer in the hands of every student.
The results are visible both district-wide and at individual schools, Spence said.
Nineteen of MCS's twenty-three schools achieved or exceeded expected growth last year, up from sixteen the previous year.
Overall, proficiency scores in the district exceed the state average and are the highest in the region, ranking Moore County twenty-fourth of the state's 115 school districts.
Improvement in the composite score on the end-of-grade tests taken by third through eighth graders propelled MCS from number 43 in the state in 2011-2012 year to number 22 last year.
Spence also highlighted specific schools that were able to correct deficiencies in certain areas of learning over the past year.
Funding formula in the works
Board Chair Kathy Farren concluded the meeting by referring back to Griffin's comments about on-going negotiations with the County Board of Commissioners.
"The County Commissioners have come to us with a funding formula," Farren said, "and asked us to look at it and come back with ours. Mike has done that. We are still in negotiations and still trying to work that out. We hope that will work out, and, if it does I believe that it will be a positive thing for Moore County Schools."
Earlier in the meeting, Farren thanked County Commissioner Nick Picerno for organizing a meeting on school funding that included Griffin, County Manager Wayne Vest, State Senator Jerry Tillman, and State representatives Jamie Boles and Allen McNeill.
"We keep trying to explain to the County Commissioners that a school budget is not simple," Farren said.
"Commissioner Nick Picerno set up a meeting with the legislators . . . I think they all left with their mouths open. Even the legislators didn't understand how the funding worked."