Beaufort Co. school board was told to cut its $254M budget. So it did ... by $3,000

For the three former educators on Beaufort County School District’s Board of Education, Friday’s meeting to make further cuts to the district’s $254 million budget was a win — even if the revised budget amount decreased by only $3,000.

The district’s 2019-20 annual budget, which has its final reading Monday night by County Council after two split votes and rebukes from council members, now sits at $254,294,360.

While the change might not look like much, the former teachers all advocated for budget cuts to shift from affecting people to affecting supplies, travel and other non-personnel expenses.

By the end of Friday’s nearly three-hour meeting, almost $2 million had been shifted to restore instructional coach positions and to a long-awaited raise for school data clerks.

Now they’re just waiting to see if County Council gets the point.

While last week’s second reading passed 5-3 and the council didn’t suggest specific cuts, Chairman Stu Rodman made a point of saying that three council members would be back for the final vote and that the budget would be a “tough decision.”

At the special-called Friday board meeting, former special education teacher and board member Tricia Fidrych led the charge to change the budget, after moving last week to restore $1.4 million in funding for 15 instructional coach positions and revisit more than 50 line items in the budget that had been proposed for cuts.

“It was a very, very close vote. I believe some of the questions regarding why were not answered,” Fidrych said on June 18, regarding the board’s previous decision to eliminate the instructional coach positions. “It sends a message, it sets a tone, a culture, that at the 11th hour we will change people’s jobs.”

At Friday’s meeting the board cut $1,687,714 from the budget, reducing district travel, student drug testing programs, school supply allocations, board funding, instructional software and departmental funds. Fidrych and board Vice Chair Cathy Robine, who worked as a teacher, principal and district officer in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, suggested the majority of the cuts that were approved on Friday.

“I just know, from my former experience as an administrator, that there are certain things you can make sacrifices on,” Robine said. “Looking at our March 31 budget, most of the schools had money left in their (school supply) budget.”

At the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to use $290,093 from the $293,175 in cuts that did not cover the restoration of instructional coaches to increase salaries for data clerks.

Board member Melvin Campbell, who previously worked as a math teacher in Boston and Hilton Head, said that he believed the council should pass the budget at its final reading, citing the need for moral accountability as well as fiscal responsibility.

“We didn’t vet the budget very well. (Friday), we vetted the budget like we should have for the last year,” he said. “But at this 12th hour I don’t think we can do a better job.”

Currently, the board is planning to start the budgeting process for the next fiscal year in October, nine months after six of the board’s 11 members took office. Campbell said that he will appreciate having the time needed to look harder at the district’s staffing needs.

“I really think we are administratively heavy compared to what we’re getting,” Campbell said. “I’m just looking at the top and saying, ‘Wow, do we need all these people?’ We can’t say that unless we know what they’re doing.”

One of the only motions to cut that was not approved on Friday was Robine’s suggestion to cut an annual $1,500 locality supplement for district administrators, which would have amounted to approximately $260,000 in savings. The board made a decision to return to it after making “non-people cuts,” and did not approve it by the end of the meeting.

“You know, we didn’t do that,” Robine said. “And I think it’s because the administrators are perceived as having a comfortable wage. Nobody likes to get their salary cut, but they’d still get the 2 percent cost of living increase.”

If the budget is not approved at Monday night’s third reading, the board will have to approve a continuing resolution for the 2019-20 budget, which would prohibit pay raises and keep spending at current levels. District chief financial officer Tonya Crosby said a 2019-20 budget would have to be approved by August at the latest, to comply with state-mandated raises for teachers whose first paycheck arrives in the middle of that month.

If this happens, Campbell said the board would face even tougher decisions.

“That might mean some things that impact the school system later on,” he said. “Say, four to five years from now, when the achievement gap is even bigger.”

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.