Bill could cut superintendents' salaries

A recently filed House bill could cut salaries for certain school system leaders, forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for city school superintendents they want to remain on the job.

House Bill 131 was filed Wednesday in the General Assembly proposing that the North Carolina State Board of Education fund one school superintendent per county. For counties, like Catawba County, with more than one school district and superintendent per county, that could mean changes in personnel, unless taxpayers want to pay for superintendents' salaries themselves.

"Each city school administrative unit shall use non-state funds for its superintendent's salary and benefits," the bill reads.

City school districts, like Catawba County's Newton-Conover City Schools and Hickory Public Schools, won't receive money to fund their superintendent's position. If the bill is passed, the State Board of Education will reduce funding allotment to each city school administrative unit by the equivalent to the midpoint of the state salary range for superintendents.

Catawba County Schools interim superintendent Glenn Barger said NCCS and HPS are sanctioned to exist by charters, unlike CCS, which is government-sanctioned. CCS is obligated to receive government funding. That need for funding, Barger said, could force city school systems to give up their charters and become one school system.

The bill allows separate school systems to keep their boards of education, but NCCS superintendent Dr. Barry Redmond said that won't be the case for long.

"If this passes, we could probably find a way to maintain separate school districts for a few years," Redmond said. "But it's a backdoor attempt to consolidate school systems into one."

And funding isn't the only thing potentially affected by a possible school-system consolidation. According to Redmond and Barger, consolidation could harm a system's ability to provide for its students.

NCCS gets about $1 million in Title 1 federal funding. The amount is based on the percentage of students enrolled in the free-and-reduced lunch program.

Redmond said consolidating systems into one district will dilute the county's overall free-and-reduced lunch population to about 45 percent, in turn reducing the amount of Title 1 funding systems receive.

"It's going to put a burden on (NCCS and HPS)," Barger said, adding that the systems will have to find ways to fund their superintendents' positions without help from the state. "That's the bottom line."

NCCS prides itself on developing strong bonds between teachers, parents and students, Redmond said. Consolidating school systems, he said, will make that difficult.

Redmond said he understands the need to look for ways to save money in the state's budget, but he said cutting superintendent salaries isn't the way to do it.

"I believe in efficiencies, but I think we can find those efficiencies within the current school district to equal or surpass (money saved from consolidating school systems)," Redmond said.

Redmond earns $132,000 a year plus $9,000 in travel expenses. During his time as superintendent, Redmond said he's been able to save more enough money to pay for his salary twice.

"It's still possible that people could utilize fund balance or local money in some way to keep funding (superintendents' salaries), but that's a real political walk, because you would immediately be criticized for using money to fund a superintendent," Redmond said.

Now, the bill is in the hands of North Carolina's elected officials.

"I'm opposed to it," said District 96 Rep. Mark K. Hilton, "because we have three schools systems in Catawba County that I think are doing a fine job."

Hilton conceded, however, that cutting city superintendents' salaries is one way to save money in a tight economy. Gov. Bev Perdue announced Thursday that her plan for North Carolina's two-year budget will cut $3.2 billion in state spending. Leaders, however, continue to look for ways to save the state money, and cutting city superintendents' salaries is one option.

Catawba County Board of Commissioners chairwoman Kitty Barnes said although the legislation is in its early stages, the bill will merit serious discussion between commissioners and the school system officials.

"At this point, we take everything seriously," she said. "We have to look at long-term impacts and short-term impacts."

It's still early in the budgeting process, Barnes said, which means a lot of the county's budget options are yet to be determined.

Catawba County Board of Education will continue with the search for a new superintendent as planned.

"It was a bill that was just introduced (Wednesday), so until a more definite action is made ... we're going to proceed as usual," said CCS Board of Education chairwoman Joyce Spencer.

CCS' Board of Education is expected to make an announcement at its Monday meeting about the superintendent search. Spencer said the announcement was planned before House Bill 131 was filed and is unrelated to potential superintendent salary cuts.