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Members of the Bladen County Board of Education and the administrative team spent several hours Monday hashing and re-hashing issues that will impact the 2015-2016 school budget.
Board members were ask to give staff guidance for a budget they will be considering at their regular meeting next week.  They must approve a proposed budget that leaders will take to the Board of Commissioners.  The budget proposal must be presented to the commissioners by May 1 for their consideration and be approved prior to July 1, 2015.
Sharon Penny, Bladen County Board of Education Finance Officer, presented an outline of three proposals based on the current budget and on previous allocations by commissioners.  Another unknown is the state portion of the local school budget, and the legislature has given little guidance for the coming fiscal year.  All will require cuts when compared to the current budget, some more than others.
Commissioners approved $6.4 million appropriations last year.  Fines and forfeitures produced another $175,000 and other sources pushed the total over $7 million.  The district is facing a $400,000 to $600,000 shortfall, closer to $400,000, according to Penny.
Dr. Robert Taylor lead the discussion on various issues, either discussing options or explaining why some cuts were not possible. 
Included was the issue of Drivers Education.  The state mandates the program, and last year funded $80,000 to support it.  This year, the funding is cut, but the mandate is still in place.  The cost of educating a student is estimated to be about $323, but the district can charge the student only $65.  Taylor is considering contracting the service, but expects the cost to remain about the same.  One option discussed was online classes, but several board members expressed concern.  The previous funding was determined by the number of freshman entering high school.  Taylor estimated that number to be about 400 for the coming year.
Another discussion related to the one to one program that provides laptops for high school students.  Taylor proposed the computers be purchased with sales tax funds.  There was some discussion related to the pros and cons of the program.  With 3 new board members, Taylor spent sometime discussing Fund 8 and how it is used.  He also explained how the local school district allocated a portion of the per pupil funding, fines, forfeitures and capital outlaid to charter schools, by law.  The cost of computers for the one to one program is about $167,000.
Tim Benton, long time educator, but first term board member, expressed concern about taking teachers out of the classroom to tutor other teachers in the New School program.  He pointed out, if you had two teachers in a course of work, and one is out of the class, the second teacher could have 35 to 45 students and that, he said, was not good for the teacher or the students.
Benton said test scores were going down and larger classes was one reason.
When low scores were being discussed, Dr.Taylor pointed out that math scores are about flat, with maybe a slight improvement, but not where we want them to be.  Others courses have shown improvement.
Dr. Wilbur Smith said the board and administration needed to look at new ways of doing things.  “We need to look at the funds we have and give the children a good education before they leave.”  He continued, “look at the front office staff, change some things, combine some positions.”
Chairman Ophelia Munn-Goins, said the children should be engaged, “We need to re-evaluate some things.” She said, “Students were told what type clothing to wear to school and some teachers came wearing flip-flops.”
Dr. Taylor returned to the budget.  “The budget is now cut to the bones, some areas we can’t cut, for instance utilities.”  Custodian positions have been reduced from 36 to 20, according to Taylor.  He told the board on his most recent visit with commissioners he was directed to “live within your budget.”   He continued, “We have no idea what the General Assembly will do,  we have no idea how the state budget will impact us.”
Penny asked for direction as she will officially present the budget to the board at their next meeting.
More discussion followed.  Dr.Taylor said they could save about $200,000 by reducing staff supplements from about 4% to about 2 1/2%.  Several indicated cutting teacher supplements would be a mistake.  Taylor proposed cutting SRO’s from seven to five.
Dr. Smith said “cuts were hard to make, but we need to look at things, look at people, consider combining some (positions).” 
“We are doing that,” according to Taylor and he offered specifics.  “The HR position has been combined with another position.  Several positions have been eliminated over the past year or so including one in finance, one in technology, and a computer tech.”
Smith added that maybe phones could be automated.
The board considered reducing their stipend and expressed concerns about a perception of the office. Dr. Taylor said he was still attempting to determine if a Maintenance Director would be named.  The current director is retiring.  He appeared to be leaning toward to a consolidation of duties for at least a year to determine if that type arrangement would work or not.
The discussion turned to closing schools.  One that was discussed was related to the three schools in the Clarkton School of Discovery.  The schools include Project Challenge, Application students and the Clarkton district students.  Numerous ideas were “kicked around’ but no consensus.  Of the students at the school, there are approximately 100 Project Challenge students, about 50 from the Elizabethtown school area.  There are 93 Application Students and about 85 Clarkton District students.  The Board was reminded, the Application Students may not be moved without permission from the state system.  They were not sure if the current plan would need to be re-written and re-approved.  Booker T. Washington has another 220 students.
There was discussion about who to move where, but no decision was reached.  Several board members said a new school for all high school students in the county would help to solve the problem, use the two high schools for middle schools, close several schools and determine where lower grade schools should be located. 
The board will consider a budget proposal to deliver to commissioners at their next meeting, knowing that whatever the final numbers, additional cuts most likely will be required.