Schools, commissioners target duplication Board, county will study ways of sharing tasks to cut education deficit

January 28, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

County and school officials are looking for ways to share tasks and pare a projected $19 million deficit in the education budget over the next five years.

The County Commissioners and the school board asked their staffs yesterday to determine what savings, if any, could be achieved by sharing insurance, groundskeeping, purchasing, vehicle maintenance and warehousing.

Shared vehicle maintenance and warehousing will be studied immediately, and the findings reported to the commissioners and the school board in mid-March. Progress on a collaborative plan for the other categories is to be shared with the board and the commissioners by June 30.

"The sooner we break down the separate but expansive functions [the school board and the county] have in common, the better," said Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown. "Let's end the duplication."

Rising educational costs are a "black hole" affecting the entire budget, Brown said. He said a $19 million deficit "is very daunting" because the county would have to raise taxes or cut other agencies' to fund the school budget. School funding accounts for 56 percent of the county's budget.

The commissioners raised the property tax rate 27 cents in 1996 to $2.62 per $100 of assessed value -- rather than cut what they said were essential services, including education.

A year earlier, the commissioners had increased the local income tax rate from 50 percent to 58 percent to raise money to build new schools. They reduced the rate to 55 percent last year.

They are reluctant to increase taxes again, especially since this is an election year.

The commissioners asked school board members to scour their budget request for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and search for savings.

"Instead of looking at what we'd like to have, we need to look at what we can do without," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell.

Brown said the question the commissioners and school board should ask in determining appropriate funding is: "What is the core of our mission? What could we define as the extras? And could we ask something from the parents to provide those extras?"

School board member Ann M. Ballard said many students are paying for extras through student-activity fees.

Board member Carolyn L. Scott said she hoped Brown was not talking about athletics and music and art classes.

"I don't consider sports, music and arts extra," she said.

Board President C. Scott Stone agreed: "We have an obligation to provide an awful lot of activities for students."

Regardless, Stone said he is convinced that the county and the school system can work through the shortfall in a mutually beneficial way without sacrificing quality.

"What I'm hearing, and what I hope the staffs are hearing, is that there's a lot of cooperation to solve the problem," Stone said.

The board and the commissioners agreed to meet every six weeks to discuss school funding and how to meet the county's educational needs. They plan to meet again in mid-March.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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