Education issues dominated the conversation at Thursday night’s town hall meeting in Clinton, a 90-minute session spearheaded by Sen. Brent Jackson at which Sampson’s representatives in Raleigh opened the floor to any topic.
Jackson, the sophomore Senator representing District 10 (Sampson, Duplin and Johnston) was joined by Reps. Larry Bell and William Brisson, both Democrats representing Sampson in the N.C. House, during the meeting held at the Sampson Community College’s Activities Center.
Bell represents District 21 (Sampson, Duplin and Wayne) and is now in his seventh term in the House. Brisson is not new to the county but the recent redistricting took Rep. J.H. Langdon out of Sampson in favor of Bladen resident Brisson’s 22nd district. He also represents Bladen and Johnston counties in his fourth term in office.
Jackson said Sampson’s meeting wrapped up a busy week.
“This is our third one we’ve had this week,” said Jackson, who participated in forums Monday and Tuesday in Johnston County with Senate and House representatives for that county. After brief introductions from Bell and Brisson Thursday, the floor was opened up to questions.
Clinton City Schools Board of Education member E.R. Mason kicked off what would be a series of public school-related concerns.
“As educators, we put the students as our top priority,” said Mason. “I’ve spent 41 years in education, but I’ve never see the concerns like they are now, as far as budget cuts and everything else. We have our entire board here.”
Mason started it off, asking that legislators fade out, and ultimately eliminate, the discretionary reductions, an issue that local school systems have contended with for years. Currently, he said, local school districts are required to identify $376 million in cuts to personnel and services and return that funding to the state each year.
“We would like to see that stopped,” said Mason. “That is a need.”
Jackson said he did not think anyone was in favor of such reversions and said he felt the 2011-12 budget reflected an improvement. “I think we will be continuing to work on that to do away with that eventually,” the senator said.
Bell referred to the process as “crazy math,” utilized a number of years ago to balance a budget. The idea was to allow cuts to be made at the local level, rather than sweeping cuts made at the state level. It took the burden off the state and put it on local school systems.
“I know it didn’t help the school systems any at all,” said Bell, a former school superintendent. “But when you have limited funds, if they don’t do that, they will not send the money down there, period. Whether you send it back, or didn’t have it in the first place, it just won’t be there.”
City school board member Jason Walters said the rub comes in where the funds are budgeted locally, but then that same budget has to be modified when the funding is pulled away.
“We’re budgeting based on that amount of money, and then you take the money away from us and we have to order cuts in areas that we didn’t foresee or don’t want to foresee,” Walters said. “Just give us the exact amount and let us plan on it, but don’t give it to us and take it away.”
Board member Diane Viser called the process “disingenuous,” saying there was no discretion, no choice to be made. Brisson said positive moves are being made toward decreasing the discretionary reductions.
City school board member Randy Barefoot offered some numbers for Clinton, noting discretionary reductions totaling about $216,000 in 2008-09. That more than doubled in 2009-10 and climbed to $632,000 in 2010-11 and nearly $900,000 in 2011-12 before coming down to $719,000 for 2012-13.
Barefoot said it would be positive if the trend could go down as quickly as it went up. Jackson said that was the plan and he believed the discretionary reduction is set to come down again.
“We’d love to eliminate it, naturally,” said Barefoot. “I know other counties are worse than ours. It is a strong need for public education systems.”
Barefoot asked the legislators their take on charter schools, which he said have acted to cut into the funds available to public school systems while not being held to the same standards.
“We’re not on the same playing field as charter schools,” said Barefoot. “They do not have to stand up to some of the same measurements we do. Charter schools are here, but what we’re asking is that you get us on the same playing field. That is a huge concern when it’s taking money out of our system and putting it in the charter school system. It’s not good for our public education.”
Bell said charter schools were designed to allow schools in the community to be innovative, spreading the educational experience around via technical-type schools. That has not materialized, he noted.
“I feel like charter-like schools are OK,” said Bell. “I feel like it should be under the present boards of education if you want to do something like that, to use your own schools for that purpose. I don’t think I would agree for them to have separate boards to set up different standards and use the same money you all are supposed to have.”
Walters said the language that would have charter schools follow the same criteria is missing from the legislative piece. Bell said he was well aware of that, being a retired public school superintendent and an education consultant who has served on committees regarding charter schools.
“You have a lot of people who support the charter school system,” said Bell. “I don’t because I think we’re setting up more schools like we had when I grew up, a three-room school. I know it didn’t meet the needs at that time, and I don’t think a little three- or four-room school will meet the needs of the kids today.”
Where charter schools may accept the students they wish, and only require 70 percent of teachers to be certified, Bell noted, public schools must accept all students and have all teachers certified. “You’re not comparing apples to apples,” said Bell. “It’s not a good way to compare, because you’re not using the same criteria. It’s not fair to you. I don’t support the concept at all and don’t think I ever will.”
Jackson said he had no problem with charter schools operating the way they did until those schools began to be fed from the same pot as public schools, without having to meet the standards.
“Until they started getting public money, I had no problem with charter schools doing whatever they wanted to do,” said Jackson. “But when they get state money, just as the public school systems do, they should be operating under the same rules. And we don’t have that. I think the argument for charter schools is it gives parents choices.”
Brisson said charter schools can pick and choose their students, and Bell noted that often that means selecting students of a higher socio-economic standing. Brisson said charter schools simply are “not on the same page,” and some middle ground needed to be reached in the meantime as charter schools were not going away anytime soon.
Asked by Walters if the state was getting any closer to legislation that would change that, Jackson said the outlook was not good.
“There appears to be more discussion about expanding charter schools than there is a level playing field,” the senator acknowledged.
Bell agreed. Brisson said it would be about adapting to a change.
“If charter schools are going to exist, then we have to get on the same page all the way across the board,” Brisson said. “They ought to be held accountable just like the public schools are. I think we did a lot of deregulating in the last two years, and I think you’re going to continue to see that happen. We realize that things have changed.”
Sampson County Schools superintendent Dr. Ethan Lenker said he did not know any superintendent or school board that was “truly afraid” of charter schools.
“We’re not afraid of the competition, but it’s all about if it’s good enough for charter schools, why not change the rules for us?” said Lenker.
He brought it back to funding.
Charter schools, if they have state money left over at the end of year, get to keep it and roll it over toward the next year, Lenker said.
“If we have money left over, not only do we have to give it back, you cut my budget the next year. So we’re going out and buying stuff so we don’t give anything back to you. If we can maximize the dollars, we’re penalized,” said Lenker, stressing the benefits that would arise from increased financial flexibility. “You’re saying it’s about school choice. Well, who knows more about schools than the people who run them every day?”
Clinton City school board member Carol Worley asked about adjusting the school system’s calendar so it might be aligned with the Sampson Community College.
“That’s been an issue for a while, and it really has a negative impact on our students. Those who would like to take classes at the community college are not able to in spring semester because they’re on a different schedule,” said Worley. “It’s just a couple weeks. We have an established start date and it puts our students at a disadvantage.”
Bell has introduced bills in the Legislature in the past, and they have been unsuccessful. He reassured Worley on Thursday that another calendar bill is being drafted. He encouraged Worley and others to speak to the benefits of such a bill when it is introduced in Raleigh.
“I think it’s a disgrace to take away from the locals and let the state decide when you start school,” said Bell. “It messes up our program, coordinating with the community college and dual enrollment, and throws all that aside. So I hope that this one goes through. We’ll try it anyway.”
Brisson said legislators would rather see counties set their own calendars, as he would. Special provisions are in place now for counties in mountain areas to set their own due to weather issues. For a couple years, Brisson said, county school systems were setting their own calendars, however problems arose when calendars were set to accommodate athletics, rather than academics, leading to the state taking back the scheduling.
“That’s one thing that got things off base,” said Brisson, “but I think that’s more under control now. I really think if a bill came through — I didn’t hear a lot of opposition with it not going back to the counties. Seems like we might see that happen in this session.”
Jackson’s next town hall forum will be held in Duplin County on Feb. 5,. Scheduled for 7 p.m. at James Sprunt Community College, Williams Hall (Room 100). He will be accompanied by Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.