Smithfield Herald

County’s schools fret about money

Johnston County school board chairman Larry Strickland signs the back 
of the dedication plaque for the Evander S. Simpson 
Johnston County school board chairman Larry Strickland signs the back of the dedication plaque for the Evander S. Simpson Building

Just days before the return of students, Johnston school board members learned what effects the recently approved state budget will have on county classrooms.

Last week, the board of education met for the first time since June. Superintendent Edward Croom gave board members a summary of the state legislature’s education budget, approved on July 30.

Overall, the General Assembly cut school funding by 2.9 percent, Croom said, citing numbers calculated by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The numbers include last year’s “one-time” textbook and supply cuts, which were continued this year.

Assuming those cuts would have ended this year, the state would have spent almost $8.1 billion on education this coming year. Instead, it will spend about $7.87 billion. The cuts, Croom noted, occurred while the number of students in the state grew by about 17,000 – around 700 of those in Johnston County.

“We’ve got some challenges to overcome in the budget,” Croom said.

In a later interview, Robin Little, the school system’s chief business officer, explained how those cuts come down to the county.

Last year, the state funded 1,616 of Johnston County’s 2,700 teachers, Little said. This year, that number drops to 1,500 after lawmakers raised the cap on classroom size. Essentially, because of larger classes, the county will need fewer teachers.

For instructional supplies such as paper and science supplies, the county received $1.1 million from the state last year. This year, that drops to about $659,000. “We don’t know how we’re dealing with that yet,” Little said.

As for textbooks, state funding dropped from about $473,000 to $323,000.

Johnston schools also lost funding for six positions in instructional support, such as guidance counselors and social workers. And state funding for teacher assistants also dropped 21 percent, Croom said.

On another topic, the superintendent said a change by the state means guidance counselors can no longer act as testing coordinators. He said the legislature’s intent was likely to move responsibility back to assistant principals, but they are too busy to do the job.

Johnston has no money to hire testing coordinators, Croom said. “That’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our principals,” he said.

Croom said the new tax credits for sending children to private schools don’t help Johnston County.

“The problem in this county is our children don’t have a lot of opportunity to go to a private school,” he said. “So money was taken out of the entire public education pot, and it’s going to help children who have access to a lot of private schools.”

Johnston County had five private schools in 2012-13, most of them small.

Croom said he would provide the board with a revised budget at its September meeting.

Health care challenge

Little presented another major challenge to the board – the impact of the Affordable Care Act on substitute teachers.

The ACA requires larger employers to offer their fulltime workers health insurance or pay a penalty of $2,000 per employee. For the purposes of the ACA, a fulltime employee is one who works at least 30 hours a week.

In Johnston, many substitute teachers work more than 30 hours a week, but the schools cannot afford to offer them health insurance, Little said. Neither can the schools afford the $8 million penalty they would face for not insuring all fulltime workers, she said.

That means the schools will have to make sure substitutes work no more than 30 hours a week, Little said. But doing so, she said. will create a shortage of substitutes, and that means some classrooms could be without substitutes when teachers are out.

Croom told board members what they can expect: “It’s very important that you understand that they cannot work every day like they did last year,” he said. “That’s going to create some phone calls to you folks because we simply do not have the funds to provide them.”

The county has contracted with a “substitute calling” company called Aesop, which will make sure no substitute works no more than 30 hours a week. The contract cost the schools $17,500 – the same amount would buy insurance for three people, Little said.

The Obama administration has pushed back the employer mandate of the ACA until January 2015, but for the purposes of counting who is a fulltime worker, this Oct. 1 is the start date.

Little said the ACA’s impact on substitutes caught the schools off guard. “It was not until the beginning of the summer until school systems heard about the impact on us,” she said.

Other part-time employees who work more than 30 hours, including non-faculty coaches, could also be affected, Little said.

Other updates

Croom’s staff also updated the school board on two new student information management systems – PowerSchool and PowerTeacher – which replaced NC Wise. The new systems came online Aug. 8, a month after the original deadline promised by the company, Pearson.

Also last week, the school board dedicated its meeting place, the Evander S. Simpson Building, which is the main office for the school system. Completed in 1977, the building recently underwent renovations.

A group of high school students attended the meeting. Their portraits have hung on the walls of the building since when they were in elementary school and were on display in the hallway for the meeting. During a break, students stood by their portraits as people took photos.