How do NC’s Border Belt counties rank for school funding? New report shows challenges

By Sarah Nagem

Robeson and Columbus counties rank among the lowest in North Carolina when it comes to funding local schools, a new analysis shows. 

Robeson County spends $656 per traditional public school student, ranking 99 among the state’s 100 counties, according to a report from the Public School Forum of North Carolina. Columbus County spends $1,180 and ranks No. 94.

By comparison, Orange County spends the most – $6,141, the analysis shows.

Even with additional money from the state for “low-wealth” counties, Robeson and Columbus still rank far below in terms of local funding per student – $1,501 and $1,881, respectively, according to the study. 

The report, which analyzed school funding at the county level during the 2020-2021 school year, highlights “a large and widening gap” between wealthy and poor counties, according to the education advocacy group. 

The state is the largest funder of education, paying base salaries for teachers and administrators and allocating money to North Carolina’s 115 school districts based on student enrollment. But counties are responsible for using local tax dollars to build schools and supplement needs, including extra pay that can serve as an incentive for teachers.

Among the state’s four Border Belt counties of Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland, Robeson offers the highest supplement for teachers: nearly $2,900. Bladen offers the lowest, with about $1,560. (Bladen also has the highest teacher vacancy rate in the state, at 22.58%, the study says.)

But Robeson County ranks last in the state in “taxable real estate per student,” a measure of property tax revenue that plays a key role in the ability to adequately fund schools, the study says. 

The Robeson County school district, which serves more than 20,000 students, asked county commissioners for an increase of nearly $5 million in local funds last year, said schools spokeswoman Jessica Horne. But the county denied the request and held the allocation steady at about $13.4 million. 

School officials will present a new budget request to commissioners by May 15, Horne said, adding that the district is “grateful for our close working relationship” with county leaders. She pointed to the Robeson County Career and Technical Education Center and Planetarium, a nearly $97 million project that broke ground last fall. 

“We value their leadership and support as we continue our mission to improve and provide even more opportunities for our students moving forward,” Horne said in an email to the Border Belt Independent. 

Columbus County, meanwhile, is No. 90 for taxable real-estate per student, according to the study. 

Columbus County Schools, a district which serves about 5,000 students, is asking county commissioners for $4.5 million for next school year – a $1 million increase from this year, according to The News Reporter. Superintendent Deanne Meadows said more money is needed to cover rising utility and fuel costs and mandated pay increases for teachers. 

The Columbus County Schools Board of Education hears a report on school construction.
Diana Matthews/The News Reporter

Ricky Bullard, chairman of the Columbus County Board of Commissioners, said he wants state lawmakers to better fund education. But Bullard, who served on the school board for 12 years, said commissioners must find a way to give schools what they need. 

“It’s got to be funded, and it’s got to come from somewhere,” he said. “That’s the only way to make Columbus County better.” 

‘School floor’ in Scotland

Scotland County is 98th in the state in the study’s tax-base rankings and 97th for ability to pay for education. 

But it is No. 50 for base spending, allocating $1,924 per student before the low-wealth supplement, according to the report. And it’s No. 1 for “funding effort,” which compares base spending to local revenue. 

That’s because of a 60-year-old state law that mandates “school floor” spending in Scotland. 

The law, enacted by the General Assembly and the governor in 1963 as the Scotland County and Laurinburg city school districts merged during integration, sets a minimum for county commissioners to spend on local schools. 

“It all boils down to we are held to that funding formula,” said Tim Ivey, chairman of the Scotland County Board of Commissioners. 

In turn, Scotland has the highest property-tax rate in the state – 99 cents per $100 of value. By comparison, neighboring Robeson County had a tax rate of 77 cents during the 2021-2022 fiscal year. 

“On the reverse side of that,” Ivey said, “we would hope that by funding those schools that we’re going to get a better return on our investment.” 

The study found that “lower wealth counties tax themselves at higher rates than wealthier counties, but are still unable to generate comparable tax revenue to wealthier counties that make less taxing effort.” 

Bladen County ranks 28th for funding effort and spends $1,768 per student without the extra low-wealth allocation, according to the study. 

Here are more comparisons between Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland: 

The new West Columbus School hosted an open house in February 2023.
Grant Merritt/The News Reporter