Last month, Superintendent Ross Renfrow gave the Johnston County Board of Education a local budget request of $63.8 million, or $8.8 million more than the current year.
At their first work session on the 2016-17 spending request, school leaders, with Renfrow’s help, pared the dollars slightly.
The superintendent recommended eliminating Wi-Fi on eight school buses and taking out the school system’s tab for two proposed charter schools. Together, those cuts save $620,000.
But Renfrow held firm elsewhere, keeping on the table higher salary supplements for teachers and increases for band directors. He did recommend moving $2.5 million out of savings to balance his budget request without additional tax dollars from county commissioners.
“When we talk about an $8.8 million increase, that can be startling to some people,” Renfrow said. But he noted that the local budget is built on estimates from the state and could change based on what the General Assembly does.
On the operations side, the biggest increase is $1.9 million in local teacher supplements, a 1 percentage point bump. Renfow said he heard the call for higher supplements over and over during his “kitchen conversations” tour around the county, and a report last fall showed that Johnston County is losing dozens of teachers each year to the higher pay of Wake County.
“We heard loud and clear that our parents are concerned about our classroom teachers not making enough money, because if they don’t make enough money, they leave Johnston County for districts where they can make more money,” Renfrow said.
Based on Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget request to lawmakers, teachers statewide could see an average 5 percent raise, which would also add $228,784 more in local pay and supplements. That’s because Johnston pays some teachers with local dollars.
Locally paid principals and assistant principals would see $150,000 more in pay based on the governor’s budget. And some band directors, particularly ones with marching bands to lead, could see five extra days of employment, adding up to $10,772 if all band directors warranted the added pay.
Renfrow appeared to have the support of the board to add $213,968 for teachers with master’s degrees. In 2013, the state stopped paying extra to teachers with new master’s degrees. Since then, about 40 Johnston teachers have earned the advanced degree but are paid the same as teachers without the degree. The proposal would add back in the 10-percent boost the state cut out.
In his initial budget, Renfrow said had requested $600,000 to make up for the expected loss of dollars to two charter schools seeking state approval to open in the county. Those schools, Johnston Charter Academy and Emereau: Johnston County are actually applying to open in 2017 and, if approved, would not affect this year’s budget.
Public-school dollars travel with county students electing to attend charter schools, whether in county or anywhere else in the state; in the past, Renfrow said, Johnston funds have traveled all the way to Buncombe County. The state mandates that school districts calculate the per-pupil cost for all students and pay that to the charters.
School board member Peggy Smith said the $600,000 would have added up to 13 percent of all operating increases in this budget, a raw deal for Johnston, she said.
“When 13 percent of our current-expense budget goes to charter schools, we don’t lose 13 percent of our teaching staff, our cafeteria staff, because they don’t come from one school,” Smith said.
Renfrow’s budget would also add one job to the payroll. He wants $80,000 to hire a media specialist to coordinate the county’s librarians.
“I’m old school, I like to use the word library and librarians, but it’s not a library anymore, and they’re not librarians,” Renfrow said. “Kids today don’t know what the Dewey Decimal System was. It’s a media center.”
Also in his initial budget, Renfrow included $20,000 to install wireless internet on eight buses. He suggested cutting it and said the idea was merely a nod to the future.
“We put this in the budget so we could start hearing these footsteps,” Renfrow said. “We want to make sure our classroom instruction dictates we need this kind of resource in the future. I don’t feel like our classroom instruction is where it needs to be across the district to warrant that expense. ... In the next couple years we think it’ll need to be there.”
It costs $2,000 to outfit a bus for Wi-Fi, plus a monthly cost of $40 per month for unlimited data. Johnston County’s bus count approaches 300, and even with one per attendance area, it can get complicated, Renfrow said.
“Who gets the Wi-Fi-wired bus on Friday night? Football or soccer. Then Tuesday? Baseball or track?” he asked.
The idea, though, enjoys support on the school board.
“I’m all for it,” Smith said. “I saw it working in Kansas City, Missouri. I think we need to be on the cutting edge of that. Athletes spend enough time on the road, and when they get home, it’s late, and I think every high school needs a Wi-Fi for the bus.”
The school system’s unencumbered cash reserves stand at a healthy $7.59 million. Renfrow wants the board to move $2.5 million of that into the schools’ operating account. He would use the money to pay bills at the beginning of the school year, when funds from other sources are still flowing to the county.
“We get a lot of money from the federal government,” Renfrow said. “That federal money all doesn’t come in July 1. Some of it, you don’t get 100 percent until October, November, December. You have issues in July and the federal money hasn’t come in yet, it’s good to have dollars in your fund balance to cover those things. Eventually, you get those things funded, but it puts a superintendent and a board in a precarious situation at the start of school.”
The board of education will hold its next regular meeting May 10.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson