Schools in NC’s Border Belt say they need more county money to replace COVID funding

By Ben Rappaport 

School boards in rural southeastern North Carolina are asking for increases in local funding to increase employees’ pay and fill gaps left by the loss of federal COVID-19 relief money.

School leaders in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties have asked county commissioners to bump up funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1. 

In North Carolina, the General Assembly pays the salaries of teachers and administrators while counties use local taxpayer money to build schools. Counties also fund supplemental pay for teachers to attract and retain employees.

Under state law, county budgets must be completed by June 30. Here’s a breakdown of requests from local school boards.

Bladen County Schools

Bladen County Schools is asking county commissioners for $10.2 million, which would be a $1.5 million increase in local spending.

The largest ask is for local teacher pay, with an increase of more than $516,000 from the current year. Other increases include operations expenses and administration. Schools are also asking for $254,000 to fund five teacher assistants in second grade classrooms across the district.

“Years ago, the state provided a teacher assistant for every K-3 classroom,” Superintendent Jason Atkinson said in his budget message. “Teacher assistants play a vital role in supporting the education of students, and especially at a critical time in students’ development of essential skills and knowledge in the early grades.”

Bladen County Commissioners have increased education spending every fiscal year since 2020. Last year’s budget marked an 8% increase from the 2021-2022 fiscal year. School leaders hope to keep up the momentum.

“Based upon preliminary estimates of state-mandated salary increases, the school system will need to increase the local budget projections to account for all local paid employees as well,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson emphasized the need to focus on teacher recruitment and retention. Bladen has consistently had one of the highest teacher attrition rates and highest teacher vacancy rates in the state.

In response, the district has implemented the highest pay supplement in the region — 8% for certified teachers. (Whiteville City Schools also has an with 8% supplement. Columbus and Robeson counties have a 6% supplement and Scotland calculates its supplement based on the number of years a teacher has worked.)

Atkinson said Bladen County Schools previously used Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds — federal emergency funding given to public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic — to improve its local supplement. ESSER funds, however, are expiring at the end of the fiscal year. 

Columbus County Schools and Whiteville City Schools

Columbus County commissioners allocate money to Columbus County Schools and Whiteville City Schools. 

The county’s proposed budget includes a total increase of 3% in education spending but falls short of both school districts’ requests. If the budget is passed, it will be the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began that Columbus County commissioners have not matched or exceeded schools’ requests.

Columbus County Schools is asking for $8.2 million, an increase of $1.7 million from the current year. According to a budget presentation to the school board in March, Columbus County Schools is set to lose more than $10 million in ESSER funds.

The county’s proposed budget includes $6.7 million for Columbus County Schools, an increase of $238,000.

Whiteville City Schools is asking for $3.9 million, an increase of $1.2 million. The proposed budget, however, includes an increase of only $15,000. 

Columbus County is planning for an $18.5 million total decrease in the upcoming budget because the county has paid off debt related to Tabor City School, according to County Manager Eddie Madden. 

Education is the third largest expense in the county’s proposed budget (about 21%, behind human services (29%) and public safety (28%). 

Public Schools of Robeson County

Robeson County schools are asking for $19.5 million. That’s the equivalent of increasing per-student funding from $646 to $936. 

The Border Belt Independent requested a copy of Robeson County’s proposed budget from the county’s finance office and public information officer but has not yet received it. 

School leaders say the additional money would be used to increase salaries and benefits of teachers and staff, pay utilities and fill gaps left by the ESSER cliff.

At a joint April meeting between the Robeson school board and county commissioners, the school district also proposed a new bond referendum for construction and renovation projects.

The district was recently awarded $72 million from the state to build the Robeson County Career and Technical Education Center, Planetarium and Science Center. The district also received $12 million from the state for the project under the Needs-Based Construction Fund.

Commissioners held a special meeting on Tuesday to review the proposed budget.

Scotland County Schools

Scotland County’s proposed budget includes $10 million for schools, roughly equal to this year’s amount. This would fulfill the district’s request for funding. 

Most of the money, $4.4 million, would go toward maintenance and construction. About $1.8 million (16%) of the education budget would go toward teacher supplements.

The proposal follows a resolution passed by the county’s liaison committee, which communicates between the school board and the board of commissioners.

“Over the past decade, the cost to operate per student continues to go up,” Micheal Chapman, Scotland County Schools operations director, told the board of commissioners in April. “All while the support from the state has gotten less and less.”  

Scotland County faces a $4.3 million budget shortfall due to the loss of pandemic-related American Rescue Plan funds, which are also expiring at the end of the fiscal year.

Scotland County Commissioner John Alford said last month that commissioners should rethink the planned allocation of $10 million for schools.

“We don’t have that money,” he said during a meeting. “We can’t give them what we don’t have and that’s what we’re proposing to do.”

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