@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

NC school leaders ask for budget flexibility as lawmakers examine school funding

Posted January 31, 2018 2:48 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 1:48 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina public school leaders urged lawmakers Wednesday to give them more flexibility in managing their budgets, more funding for students with disabilities and less responsibility in distributing money to charter schools.

Local superintendents and school finance officers spoke before the General Assembly's Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform to share their thoughts about education funding. The task force is working to overhaul the way North Carolina divvies up billions of dollars for local schools.

A common theme school leaders returned to during the meeting was the need for increased flexibility in how they use state funds.

"Flexibility is important," said Cleveland County Schools Superintendent Stephen Fisher. "I know in Cleveland County, with a little over 14,000 students, we have different cultures, we have diverse communities, we have diverse school needs."

Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, said he supports as much flexibility for local school districts as possible but questioned whether that could create problems.

"Is flexibility going to create a lack of funds? When you enhance one area, are you going to deprive another area?" Iler asked. "Is that a danger if we say, 'Just take the money and do whatever you want'?"

Fisher agreed that it could "possibly create issues."

"I would agree that’s a danger," Fisher said. "I understand with flexibility comes a lot of responsibility, and there's accountability with that as well. I think that increased flexibility allows school districts and superintendents to try to be as innovative as possible to truly meet those needs."

North Carolina currently doles out public school funds using a series of 37 allotments, which designate specific amounts for classroom teachers, school building administration and so on. A 2016 report by the General Assembly's research staff said the current system is too complex, lacks transparency and accountability and at times favors wealthier counties.

One area school leaders said they would like to see more funding is for students with disabilities, also known as Exceptional Children, or EC.

Jeff Hollamon, associate superintendent and chief financial officer for Onslow County Schools, said the state currently caps EC funding at 12.75 percent of the student population in each district, but about 14 percent of his district's students have special needs.

Fisher said his district also has more EC students than the budget allotment covers.

"You have students who have to be served," he said.

Students with disabilities are funded at a flat rate that does not take into account the severity of their disability or the setting, despite the fact that students with some disabilities cost significantly more to teach than others, according to the General Assembly's 2016 report.

The 12.75 percent funding cap on money given to school systems with students with disabilities was put in place to prevent over-identifying students with disabilities. However, schools that exceed the cap receive less money for each of their students with disabilities.

A major change several school leaders requested involved shifting responsibility for who distributes money to public charter schools. Local school districts are currently tasked with that, but some school leaders said the state or counties might be better equipped to distribute the money.

New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Tim Markley said that could help eliminate the "sometimes adversarial role" between traditional public schools and charter schools when it comes to funding.

The 2016 report found that translating the state's system for funding school districts into a method for providing per-pupil funding for charter schools has created several challenges. For example, providing transportation is optional for charter schools. As a result, 49 percent of charter schools got money for services they didn't provide, the report found. On the other hand, some charter schools received less money than they should have based on how student membership was calculated.

North Carolina's public school funding formula hasn't been overhauled in decades, and changing it could affect North Carolina public schools for decades more. The General Assembly's task force is slated to recommend changes in October 2018, but some have said the matter may take longer than that.

House Education Committee Chairman Craig Horn, R-Union, said the group still needs to hear from more education leaders, including those from charter schools.

"This is a complex issue, no question," Horn said. "What rock have we not yet looked under? ... (There are) a lot of dogs in this fight."