The annual public hearing on Moore County's budget is seldom a pleasant experience, for either the folks speaking or the commissioners listening.
Funding for public schools is generally the focus — which is not surprising, given that funding for education makes up forty-two percent of the county's general fund budget.
It's not uncommon for speakers to insinuate — when they don't come right out and say it — that the Moore County Board of Commissioners are underfunding education and playing fast and loose with the future of Moore County's children.
But, this year, it was different.
The dozen speakers who took turns at the microphone during the Tuesday, June 3 hearing on County Manager Wayne Vest's proposed FY2015 budget spent as much time thanking the commissioners for their continued support of the schools — and their recent advocacy for school funding in Raleigh — as they did pressing the case for additional school funding.
Funding formula in the works
That change in tone from previous years may reflect the improved relationship between the two boards and their efforts to develop a funding formula that would provide Moore County Schools [MCS] with a fixed percentage of county tax revenues each year.
School Board Vice Chairman Ben Cameron made just that point as the first speaker during the public hearing.
"We are excited and encouraged about the conversations between the boards — and working together on fixing the problem that the state has created," he said. "Your eye is on the future . . . and we look forward to continuing our productive collaboration."
County Manager Vest's budget does not give MCS the $2.3 million increase in local funding that the district requested, but does provide a $488,000 increase. The budget includes a $600,000 allocation to support the district's digital learning initiative, which aims to put a computer in the hands of every student.
Cameron expressed appreciation for the budgeted increase, while noting that the combination of state budget cuts and a growing student population mean that MCS now spends $500 less per pupil than it did in 2008.
Parents for Moore turn out
Many of those who spoke during the hearing — and most of the dozens more who attended to show their support for the schools — were wearing the large red badges of Parents for Moore, a newly-organized group that aims to press for an increase in per pupil funding. The group hosted three informational meetings on school funding last month and used social media to encourage its members to attend the public hearing on the county budget.
Karin Kent, one of Parents for Moore's organizers, drove that message home in her remarks, while praising both the stewardship of the school district and the cooperation between the commissioners and MCS.
Kent noted that twenty-four percent of Moore County's population is now under the age of nineteen, and that the school district has gained 800 more students over the past five years. She said a high-quality workforce is essential to attracting new business and industry.
"We need additional per pupil funding," she said.
Military families weigh in
The commissioners heard from three women from military families who, when they were transferred to Ft. Bragg, chose Moore County for the quality of its schools.
"Our number one priority was finding a strong school system," Kristin Parker said. "It was an easy decision to choose Moore County."
Parker told the board that the military contingent at Ft. Bragg is more stable than at other bases because of the types of units and jobs on the base — which means that many Ft. Bragg families become lifetime Moore County residents.
"We love Moore County," military wife Patricia Taylor said, "and that includes our schools and amazing teachers. We have been here five years and intend to make it our permanent home."
"I believe we are on the verge of a crisis in our schools," Taylor said, citing low teacher pay, low spending per pupil, and the elimination of teacher and teacher assistant positions. "Now is the time for bold action."
Rollie Sampson, a military wife who is an active volunteer in the schools, as well as a part-time teacher at the Community Learning Center at Pinckney, said her family struggled with whether to relocate permanently to Virginia, because of stronger support for education in that state.
"We have amazing teachers in Moore County," she said. "That is the reason that we stayed. But how long can a teacher hang on? As you go forward and advocate, we can no longer continue to cut."
Don't pass the buck
Nancy Carter, an exceptional child teacher at Union Pines High School, had the strongest words for the commissioners.
Noting that she has two children in college who plan to pursue careers in teaching, she said, "If things don't change in North Carolina and Moore County, I may have to suggest that they take their skills elsewhere."
"Do not pass the buck," she urged the board. "Be a part of the necessary changes that must happen. There are actions you can take now to show you want the best and the brightest teachers in Moore County."
"Otherwise, step down, and let those serve who are willing to do the right thing."
Teachers or digital learning or both?
The public hearing testimony included two quite different perspectives on the school district's digital learning initiative, which the County supported with $750,000 in funding last year, and which is budgeted at the same amount in the FY2015 MCS budget.
Louis Gregory, who challenged Commissioner Otis Ritter in the May GOP primary, suggested that $750,000 would pay for sixteen teachers.
"If, at the end of the day, we say that we don't have enough for teachers," Gregory said, "and yet we are purchasing mechanical learning devices, ask them [the school board] to delay that and instead spend the money to pay for sixteen teachers."
But Robin Calcutt, Principal at New Century Middle School, said students need to learn how to use modern tools in order to do modern work. After laptops were rolled out at her school this year, "we witnessed a huge increase in mastery," she said.
Access to digital tools and resources "have elevated New Century and other schools into the schools we have always dreamed of for our students," Calcutt added.
The fundamental resource
Moore County Teacher of the Year Meg DeMolet, a kindergarten teacher at Pinehurst Elementary, asked the Commissioners "to continue to put education at the top of your priority list."
Quoting President John F. Kennedy, she said: "Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource."
DeMolet gave each of the Commissioners an apple to which was attached a photo of a student and a quote from the late Maya Angelou.
After the hearing was closed, each commissioner made a few points in response to what they had heard.
After the economic downturn in 2009, the board "made cuts in every department in the county except for education," Chairman Larry Caddell said. "Most of the dilemma we run in to is not because of us, but because of the state. If you go back and look at all the cuts, they were all on the state level."
"You are great speakers," Caddell said. "I love your passion. Our number one job is to protect the people of the county and then to fund the schools. We have been pro-education, and we do understand your pain."
Noting that his first job out of college was as a teacher, Commissioner Nick Picerno asked why, suddenly, this year, teacher pay has become such a big issue in the state, implying that politics might have something to do with the issue's current prominence. He encouraged the public to "look at the numbers and look at the spending."
"The state legislature spent more last year than it has ever spent on education," Picerno said. He asked whether surrounding counties have better schools because of their higher property taxes.
"Our schools are doing a good job," Picerno said. "Let's not get wrapped up in the media . . . . Look at the facts and see where the money is going. Moore County is not going down; we are going up."
Noting that the meeting chamber was much fuller than is typical for commissioners meetings, Commissioner Randy Saunders encouraged those in attendance to make it a more regular habit. Saunders explained that the process of creating a county budget begins in October and said, "We need you people here more often — not just once a year. I appreciate the fact that we have so many people here pushing."
Saunders, who has been the board's point man on education, expressed optimism about the ongoing negotiations with the school board on a funding formula. And he expressed strong support of the digital learning initiative.
Commissioner Otis Ritter, who has served as a substitute teacher at North Moore High School, also expressed strong support for the digital learning initiative. "That is one of the most valuable things we have done," he said.
"Give us time; we are working for you," Ritter said.
"As teachers, you are shaping the lives and the future of these children," Commissioner Jimmy Melton said. "All the fancy gadgets are really good, but the example you set is what's really important."
The county budget is due for a vote at the next Commissioners meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, June 17 at 6:00 pm.