News-Star: Opinion

Is the right thing also the wise move?

As the chief appointed advocate for Johnston County public schools, Superintendent Ross Renfrow did the right thing, submitting a budget that meets all of Johnston’s local school needs without regard for cost. But unless he gets lucky, Dr. Renfrow is delaying inevitable cuts in his spending plan.

By lucky, we mean the General Assembly could still back away from its mandate that N.C. public schools reduce class size in grades K-3. State lawmakers required lower student-teacher ratios in those grades but appropriated no money for schools to hire the additional teachers. So Dr. Renfrow is seeking all of that money from Johnston County taxpayers.

But while legislation in the General Assembly would drop the class-size mandate, its passage is uncertain. Just as important, state lawmakers have shown no interest in increasing spending to hire additional teachers, and we’re certain Johnston county commissioners won’t give Dr. Renfrow the nearly $20 million extra he is seeking for the public schools this year.

So at some point, Dr. Renfrow is going to have to return to the budget drawing board. And even if the General Assembly does bail the schools out, Dr. Renfrow’s budget request it still more than county commissioners are likely to fund. It includes right much new spending. Indeed, the additional teachers for class-size reduction represent only a quarter or so of the requested budget increase. Instead, among many things, Dr. Renfrow would give teachers another percentage-point jump in the local salary supplement. That alone would cost $1.9 million. He would also increase base pay for a host of employees, including principals, assistant principals and teachers with advanced degrees. The superintendent would hire five new nurses, seven more social workers and a webmaster. In all, higher personnel costs account for about $13.5 million of the spending request.

All of that higher spending might survive in the spending request that the Johnston County Board of Education sends to county commissioners early next month. But county commissioners aren’t going to write the schools a check for $77.7 million, which would be 34.4 percent more than they appropriated this fiscal year. Even if commissioners agree that the schools deserve all of the county dollars Dr. Renfrow is seeking, commissioners aren’t going to slap a $20 million tax increase on Johnston property owners.

When commissioners inevitably give the schools substantially less than $77.7 million, the school board will blame the ensuing “cuts” on commissioners. That’s how this political game is played. But commissioners don’t tell the schools how to spend their money. Commissioners appropriate the money; the schools decide where it goes. So at a meeting sometime in late May or June, the school board will decide which of Dr. Renfrow’s spending wishes go and which remain.

Now it’s possible that Dr. Renfrow’s priorities will be the school board’s too. Or it’s possible the school board will see things differently.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this piece: Dr. Renfrow might have done the right thing by submitting a budget request that supports needs without regard for cost. But did he also do the wise thing?

The superintendent might wish he had bitten the budget bullet himself. He’ll know soon enough, we suppose