What some Johnston County households might see as welcome relief, the Johnston County Board of Education sees as its next unfunded mandate. The General Assembly is mandating local school systems offer free or reduced-priced driver’s education programs, but some Johnston school board members are asking who is going to pick up the tab.
Previously, school systems couldn’t charge a student more than $65 to take driver’s ed, but lawmakers recently tweaked the law to require districts to offer some kind of discount or to make the program free.
Johnston schools came up with $32 as the reduced price and planned to apply the same income threshold it uses for free and reduced-priced school lunches. The problem is, none of these numbers have anything to do with the actual cost of the the program. Oliver Johnson, the assistant superintendent for student services, said driver’s ed costs the school system $350 per student, with the state reimbursing $190 of that and students paying $65. That leaves Johnston schools to cover the test of the tab. or $95.
With the change in state law, school board member Keith Branch pointed out the gap between reality and funding from the state was about to get larger.
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“Right now, if you have free and reduced lunch, there’s money to take care of that,” Branch said. “Where is this money going to come from?”
“The county budget,” Superintendent Ross Renfrow said.
Rough math puts the number of driver’s ed students at 2,000 annually. Taking a school like Smithfield-Selma High, where the free and reduced lunch rate is around 70 percent, Branch figures the school system will have to come up with an additional $25,000 over four years. Factor in the rest of the county, and it could be a few hundred thousand dollars for each class that passes through.
“I understand the logic behind it, but that’s a lot of money,” Branch said.
Noting that some General Assembly candidates were present for the school board’s October meeting, Renfrow tried to put a bug in some ears regarding what he characterized as an unfunded mandate.
“If you’re going to mandate it, by golly give us some money to do it,” Renfrow said.
Based on the provision passed by the General Assembly this year, the school system doesn’t have much wiggle room, said Johnson, the assistant superintendent. It can either waive student fees for driving classes or reduce them. Lawmakers offered no guidance on what the discount should be or which students should receive it, but Renfrow said Johnston County thought it reasonable to use free and reduced lunch as the threshold.
Branch, claiming to play devil’s advocate, suggested the students qualifying for breaks might not be driving on their own anytime soon, either because they don’t care to drive a car or can’t afford to.
“I could see where it’s costing the school system a lot of money to benefit students who don’t really need or aren’t going to take advantage of it because they’re not going to be able to drive for years,” he said.
Branch suggested issuing discounts on a case-by-case basis.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be as liberal with defining hardship, maybe we should do it more on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “There’s a lot of people, honestly guys, who get free and reduced lunch who could afford lunch better than I could for my kids.”
The board of education has 30 days to make any changes to its proposed policy, before adoption in November.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson