Divided Brunswick school board approves county funding agreement

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BCSThe Brunswick County Board of Education has approved its local funding agreement for the coming fiscal year—even if reluctantly so.

Following a heated discussion on the matter, a divided board decided 3-2 to adopt the agreement, which keeps funding at the same rate—36.5 percent of property tax revenue—it has been for the last five years. Board members John Thompson and Bud Thorsen cast the dissenting votes.

“I can’t support it. It is an acknowledgement that we would be accepting inadequate funding for our children and staff,” Thompson said ahead of the vote. “I want to go on record as saying we need the extra money.”

In two separate meetings, school board members and district officials asked the county to up that rate by 1.5 percent to help make up for a $3.6 million overall shortfall in 2015-16. Both times, the request was denied.

County commissioners have previously cited their own budgetary needs and constraints next year, adding that even at the same percentage, the funding agreement should give the district an extra $400,000 based on estimated tax collection rates.

“I am very concerned about that,” vice chairwoman Shirley Babson said. “I understand what their position is. They’re getting cuts from the state in many programs, the same way we are. But…it’s past time [for an increase]; it really is affecting the educational system.”

Cuts aside, Thompson said what the county is really concerned with is keeping its budget revenue neutral next fiscal year, a push, he said is not necessary.

“I’m curious about that. Why is it so important to remain revenue neutral? I know they’ve talked about having to reduce benefits for their employers and things like that but we’ve been doing that for years,” he said.

Thompson recommended rejecting the funding agreement as is and voicing, as a board, the school district’s specific needs.

“We have to communicate that we need additional funding, period…And we have to mean it and say in sincerely and trust them to try to do their best to meet those needs,” he told the board.

“I may be missing something, Mr. Thompson, but haven’t we done that several times?” Thorsen countered.

County commissioners are doing their best, chairwoman Catherine Cooke, whose husband, Marty Cooke, is on the board, argued.

“I believe in the funding agreement, and I support the funding agreement,” Cooke said. “They are very well aware of what we need, as well as needs of the rest of the county. I don’t believe they have been negligent in trying to provide us what they need. They’re doing what they can do in this economy to provide for us.”

“You know that’s in direct opposition to the superintendent’s recommendation?” Thompson fired back. “Was he just kidding? Our educators are telling us they need the money…We’ve been very good partners and gracious partners and at some point we have to stand up and say additional funding is necessary.”

Although she agreed, Babson said she was going to vote for the agreement so the board could “move on.”

“I don’t know what would happen if we vote against it. I don’t know if it would make a difference…We’ve had such a great working relationship and I’d like to see it continue. I’m in a quandary but i think at this time I’m going to vote for it so we can move forward.”

Instead of granting the requested percentage increase, which would have amounted to $1.4 million, county commissioners are giving school board a little bit of wiggle room in how money from the 2015-16 funding agreement is spent.

As previously written, .75 percent of the the 36.5 percent in tax revenue was set aside for capital needs. In the coming fiscal year, the county has given the district the option to amend that breakdown so that 36 percent be allotted for operating costs, leaving .5 percent for capital expenditures.

Commissioner Scott Phillips has previously said that, based on projections, the 36.5 percent agreement would still yield an additional $819,000 over the 2014-15 contribution.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com.