Bladen County Schools among 20 low-wealth districts that could be penalized by state

By Ivey Schofield

Bladen County Schools is among 20 low-wealth public school districts in North Carolina that officials say misused state funds meant for teacher bonuses. 

The N.C. State Board of Education adopted a report last week that stated the districts misinterpreted guidelines and could be penalized $37 million. 

In 2021, the General Assembly designated $100 million for public school districts across the state to boost teacher pay. The funds were not meant to replace local funding but to supplement teachers’ pay. 

Elly Johnson, a spokesperson for Bladen County Schools, told the Border Belt Independent on Wednesday that the district did not use the funding to replace local or federal allocations. 

“I am not sure why the state thinks this,” Johnson said, adding that the money was used for bonuses. 

The special fund was meant to help attract and retain teachers in North Carolina, which ranks 46th in the nation for starting teacher pay and 36th for overall teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.

Teacher vacancies increased across the state during the coronavirus pandemic, which forced schools to switch to remote learning. 

Bladen County Schools, which serves about 3,800 students, saw the highest percentage of vacancies among the state’s 115 districts in 2020-2021, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction

That year, Bladen County received about $781,800 from the state fund for teacher bonuses, giving 97% of its teachers a $2,000 bonus, according to the state report.

Bladen County’s total deficit to the state was about $6,500, said Todd Silberman, spokesperson for N.C. Department of Public Instruction. He said the budgets for the N.C. House and Senate provide a 5% threshold, which would cover the county’s deficit.

The 20 districts, which also include Cumberland and Lenoir counties, would lose a total of $37 million in 2024, the report says, and it would cost them $6.6 million to revise their budgets.

For those districts, “there is significant financial impact … and ultimately the teachers in their districts,” according to the report. 

The State Board of Education has asked the legislature to clarify guidelines for the funds. Some districts and their attorneys have reportedly challenged the state board’s interpretation, which is also included in the proposed House and Senate budgets. 

The board also asked lawmakers to change the state law so the districts would not be penalized, The News & Observer reported

In the 2021-2022 school year, Bladen County Schools had more than $52 million in expenditures, with more than $28 million spent on salaries. The state pays for salaries, but counties supplement their pay. 

Bladen County Commissioners gave schools $6.8 million in 2021-2022 and $7.5 million in 2022-2023. 

Johnson said that without the additional funding from the state, “The teachers would not receive the bonus pay.” 

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash