Senate budget threatens NCCS, HPS

The N.C. House of Representatives' budget funds three school systems in Catawba County. However, a proposal to fund one school system per county is part of an N.C. Senate plan that could seriously impact Newton-Conover City Schools and Hickory Public Schools.

"I'm totally against (funding one school system per county)," said Sen. Austin Allran. "I've always opposed that funding provision."

Allran said a proposal to fund only one school system per county comes up "every year" during the budget process. And each year, Allran said he's opposed it.

The state's idea of funding one school system comes in the form of dollar signs.

Allran said if the state funds 100 school systems, instead of 115 educational districts, North Carolina can save $13 million. However, by having three school systems, Allran explained Catawba County students receive more state and federal funds.

"Schools could lose federal dollars, as well as state dollars," Allran said. "The locals have to make a decision to either consolidate or come up with the money."

The N.C. Senate's proposal is not mandating a consolidation, but stating it only wants to provide funds for a single school system per county, Allran said.

Under the proposed N.C. Senate budget, Catawba County Schools Superintendent Glenn Barger said the state will cut school funding 20 percent for the 2011-12 budget year and then send funding for one school system for the 2012-13 school year.

"Someone needs to look at the total picture and revenues that come into the system and what will be the net results," Barger said. "(CCS) doesn't get as much federal funding as Newton-Conover City Schools and Hickory Public Schools."

Newton-Conover City Schools Superintendent Dr. Barry Redmond said a consolidation in Catawba County will cause a drastic decrease in federal money. Redmond explained that the poverty level in a city is higher than the county's total level.

"It would cost our county more federal dollars than it's going to save the state," Redmond said. "What looks like a move toward efficiency would actually end up costing Catawba County at the student level, because there is no federal money. It's dilluting the poverty level."

Redmond said he does not support funding one school system per county because he thinks it will hurt families and students, served by the school systems, he said. However, Redmond said if NCCS has to consolidate, they'll do it.

"If this is how it ends, it would probably mean we would continue to exist one more year, then be forced to merge," Redmond said. "The county probably can't afford to come up with those kind of extra dollars (to fund three school systems)."

Redmond said NCCS could use its fund balance to operate an additional year without state funds, but will then be forced to merge.

What does the community want?

Barger said in 1997, Catawba County Commissioners hired a company to perform a study on merging the county's three school systems. After months of research, the study showed that the school systems could be merged. However, after more than 400 county residents protested against a school merger at a county commissioners' meeting in December 1997, the board voted to not consolidate schools, according to an article published by The Observer News Enterprise. That was the last time a study, authorized by commissioners, was completed.

"I think that the size of the school system, whether multiple or single, has to be a decision the people make that have children in schools and support the schools," said Barger. "My concern is we have a legislative body that's saying they are only funding one school district. Let the issue come to the local commissioners or school boards to the people that are going to be affected the most by those issues. Let the people vote on it."

Allran agreed.

"If you are going to consolidate school systems into one, it needs to be done locally," Allran said. "It can be done on the local level, if the people want to do that."

Barger, who has been in the educational system for 38 years and a past county commissioner, said consolidation has been a "hot topic in Catawba County" from time-to-time.

"I'm against it in terms of the way it's being proposed right now," Barger said. "I'm not saying it wouldn't be good for Catawba County. If it gets to the point that educational opportunities are not the same for every boy and girl in Catawba County, then it's time to take steps to make sure that they are all on the same (level).

"I think Hickory and Newton both have done an excellent job," Barger continued. "We have been blessed by commissioners to move educational opportunities forward in all three (school systems). If their funds shrink, then the educational opportunities will shrink and will have to be cut."

Redmond said he'll do what's best for NCCS students.

"The focus needs to be continued on efficiencies," Redmond said. "I can't endorse it. I can understand why people might think it'll be better. If we have to, we'll make it work. We get along well with other school systems. The goals stay the same — to do the best for students."

As for NCCS' staff, Redmond said it "means nothing as far as changes to teachers," and probably not much of a difference for principals.

However, Redmond said there's no guarantee employees in the central office can keep their same position in a merger.

"We wouldn't need three of everything," Redmond said, referring to staff at NCCS, HPS and CCS merging.

Redmond said the school system will use retirements and resignations to avoid eliminating central office staff.

The fight continues
The next step for Allran is to take his two shots at making sure the N.C. Senate lets go of the idea of funding only one school system per county. Allran said he will amend it when the budget bill comes up in the Senate. The second approach is to take out the provision when the Senate and House budget goes to conference.

Allran said the bill is expected to be in the Senate on Tuesday and will pass by Wednesday. If the funding plan stays in the Senate's budget, Allran said the House and Senate have to "work out the differences." He said he'll have someone on the conference committee advocating to keep funds for 115 school districts.

"We always defeat it, and I anticipate we can defeat it again," Allran said.