Pasquotank Schools: What to do about mounting costs?

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An interview with School Board Members Sharon Warden and Pam Pureza

Sharon Warden

Sharon Warden

A short while ago, Pasquotank County Commissioner Jeff Dixon suggested that officials might attempt to borrow $500,000 from the Hospital Authority Board and provide that funding to the School Board to be used for improving information technology within the county school system.

Regrettably, that request was turned down.

Therefore, we recently met with School Board Vice Chair Sharon Warden and member Pam Pureza to discuss the gap in funding that has grown out of the recently approved county budget.

Both Warden and Pureza believed that the Hospital Authority Board had the discretion to approve this request, but clearly, they stated that having funds for ongoing expenses was the reason why the request had been turned down.

Warden believed that the Authority Board would provide some funding and was very disappointed with the outcome, especially with the comment by Commissioner Dixon that what was being requested was “The County’s Money”.

Pam Pureza

Pam Pureza

Another potential source of funding is the quarter-cent increase in the sales taxes, which would be dedicated to the School Board. Everyone recalls that this same proposal was placed on the November election ballot in 2010 but that the voters turned down this tax increase in the belief that the school board does not spend its money wisely.

Many people have expressed similar sentiments this time around as well.

Ms. Warden hopes there is now a better understanding because the school board has attempted to be more transparent about its needs. School officials have attempted to promote the tax increase more effectively than the previous attempt.

Mrs. Pureza believes that approval of this measure is a 50/50 proposition. Also, she agrees that the school board needs to be more effective in spending the money that they receive from taxpayers — than has been the case in the past. But, she also states that the citizens need to put aside their personal beliefs and do what is right for the kids.

As she puts it: The longer they wait to make investments in information technology, the more they will need to make up later. What is being sought is not extravagant.

Both Warden and Pureza said the electorate needs to be wise about who is voted into office to be a County Commissioner. Both acknowledge that at present time, only one seat on the Board of Commissioners is a contested race, so there is little opportunity to see any substantive changes in the makeup of the Commissioners — at least in the short run.

There is no silver bullet that will solve the funding problem. Last year, the County Commissioners publicly discussed raises for a couple of department heads, which turned out to be a big mistake, resulting in an outcry from other county employees who had not seen raises in several years.

This set off a firestorm, which resulted in the Commissioners having to find additional money to solve that problem, and which resulted in a $700,000 reduction in the School Board funding request. At that time, Commissioner Griffin said very prophetically that the problem was going to resurface in the succeeding year and, of course, it did. Now, the school board is being under-funded again, compared to their budget request, and the reason this time are other emergency expenses that have come along and impacted the budget this year — just like last year.

Quite naturally, the school board questions whether next year is going to be the same scenario when another emergency arises.

Many believe one example of wasteful spending is a consultant — hired by the County — to watch over pending legislation and look for issues that the Commissioners should know about. This consultant costs the county $50,000 per year. In another instance, the Solid Waste Department wants to spend  $75,000 to enlarge the fenced area of a convenient site, while installing a rolling gate on one side so that vehicles will have an extra means to exit.

The Solid Waste Director, Mike Etheridge, suggests these improvements will make the turning radius for large trucks easier to manage. No one on the Board of Commissioners seems to take into account that these funds all add up and might be better used if repurposed to benefit the schools.

Warden and Pureza see part of the problem as apathy by citizens who are quick to identify the problem but not so quick to identify a solution and far less quick to volunteer their services to sit on these boards and make decisions that are in the best interest of the County.

As Mrs. Pureza puts it, the school board is a thankless job. When she and Sharon Warden ran for these positions, they were told how easy it was going to be and how little time it was going to take. But to do the job well, it has become the most full-time/part-time job they have ever held. Your time is never your own, says Sharon Warden.

We discussed information where the school board is proposing to replace the roofs on five or six schools over the next couple of years. This is going to cost millions of dollars. But when asked where the money was going to come from, there were no ready answers.

Pureza stated that maintenance of schools has been a Band-Aid approach for several years. They are still paying for various schools and in general, we talked about the upkeep of school buildings and the financial challenges that are going to be faced by taxpayers in the years to come.

Both agree that there is not one single thing that is going to solve all the problems. Pam thinks that they are now getting the attention that they need about the importance of education. But, having the money that they need will not fix all of the problems. Also, improving the poverty rate in the area will not fix everything either.

Warden specifically believes that the lottery money has not been distributed as well as expected and feels that the program was sold to the public as benefiting schools and that without that sales pitch, the citizens of this state would never have approved the lottery. How much money is being provided to local schools is not clear as of this writing, but we have spoken to Representative Steinburg and he is in the process of assembling some information, which we can incorporate into this discussion, albeit at a later date.

The funding issue has another element, which is the lack of a direct funding mechanism, specifically for schools. According to Sharon Warden, the school board is on the bottom end of the food chain in Pasquotank County and every year they have to go to the County Commissioners with their hat in their hand and beg for money.

The School Board is the largest employer in PasquotankCounty but its funding is always subject to other issues that come up and are placed ahead of the needs of the School Board.

As for improved school spending, as Mrs. Pureza puts it, it is hard to cut jobs if you have a heart.

In addition, it was pointed out that the Superintendent has rejected attempts to have an appointed advisory board of  HVAC installers, roofers and other trades people, to look at capital improvement costs and seek the means of providing the highest return at the lowest cost. But if capital improvements continue to place a strain on county budgets, something has to give and it cannot always be the School Board dipping into its fund balance to make up the shortfall in county funding.

We were pleased to have the opportunity to talk to both of these ladies who are influential members of our School Board and we hope that issues have been raised that will translate into some positive action for our schools going forward.

Reporter’s Note: Our County Commissioners had known for several years that they had failed to provide raises two county employees last year yet they did nothing about it until the Social Services employees demonstrated their response to the raises that were given a few Department heads and discussed in public. Now, like last year, the school board is under-funded again.

In addition to these problems, we also have the prospect for capital improvements in the millions of dollars in the relatively near future. So I ask our readers where this money is going to come from?  Are we going to be willing to accept a huge property tax increase to pay these costs? What are we going to do when faced with the challenges that are coming our way?

PasquotankCounty, rightly or wrongly, has made no provisions for what to do if we continue to see a reduction in population while the cost of capital demands for schools and the general cost of government keep going up. It seems that the Commissioners are hoping that the Solar and Wind Farms will produce the revenue that is needed to fuel the growth in spending that is sure to come.

I hope they are right but I would not hold my breath.