By Richard Sullins |

As a critical moment came Monday night in the budget development process for the 2022-23 fiscal year, it became clear that teachers and staff in Lee County will not get an increase in their local supplements in the coming school year from their county commissioners.

The commissioners have been working for the past month to assemble a revenue and spending plan for the coming year that will keep the county’s growth on the upward trajectory that began almost two years ago when growth at the Central Carolina Enterprise Park triggered increases in property and sales tax revenue that filled the county’s coffers to levels never seen before.

The board used most of those gains last year to cut the county property tax rate by one and a half cents per $100 of property valuation, and though there was unanimous agreement this past January that another round of tax cuts should be a goal again this year, its three Democratic members lacked a single Republican vote necessary to support increasing the local supplement from county funds.

Commissioners held a joint meeting with members of the Board of Education on Monday to hear their request, and Lee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan made it clear at the outset that the school board’s highest priority next year was to provide an increase for its teachers and staff.

Noting the commissioners had been generous with the Lee County Schools district over the years, Bryan said “to continue to be competitive with districts to the north that are offering anywhere from 18 to 24 percent supplements that they fund from local dollars, our first priority is to provide an increase that makes the supplements that we can offer to seem more competitive to teachers who are considering teaching in our schools. We want to be able to offer our students the best educators that we can offer both inside and outside the classroom.”

Democratic Commissioner Cameron Sharpe asked Bryan whether all four Democrats and three Republicans on the school board had supported the request for the increase, and Bryan indicated it had been adopted by a unanimous vote.

Sharpe then chose to seek an answer from a fellow commissioner, Republican Bill Carver, on whether he supported the increases. Carver serves as the liaison from the commissioners to the school board and attends their meetings to keep his members apprised of any issues raised there.

“Last year, I was a proponent of the increase, and I am again this year. But like always, I don’t know how that’s going to turn out,” Sharpe said. “Let me ask (Carver) what he thinks. Do you support the supplement increase?”

“I will tell you that the answer is no,” Carver replied. “I think we need a clear idea of how we are measuring improvement.”

That exchange effectively killed any hopes the Democrats might have had to pick up the one vote they need to use county funds for an increase in supplements this year. Republican Chairman Kirk Smith said last spring he didn’t support an increase in the supplement because of what he termed the “mediocre performance” of the county’s schools. Republicans Andre Knecht and Arianna Lavallee have not supported the issue in the past and do not appear to have changed their positions over the past 12 months.

Bryan explained that the average raise provided to teachers during the current year was 5 percent. Teachers had last seen a significant raise from the state legislature in 2008, and those salary increases are paid from state dollars because funding for teachers comes from Raleigh. The school board had to move money around last fall to cover identical raises for non-state paid employees, such as custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers.

Because the county did not fund an increase in the supplements last summer, Lee County Schools was able to use funding from federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief) funds that will run out in September 2024. Permanent raises would run out then.

“What we are providing this year are retention bonuses, or one-time supplements,” Bryan said.

However, Crumpton said, as The Rant reported earlier this month, “eventually, those dollars will run out in 2024 and that expense could come to us.”

The issue is more critical, though, for keeping up with raises that were granted by the state to county teachers.

“As they are giving raises to locally paid employees to keep pace with what the teachers are getting, that cost will eventually come to the county,” Crumpton said. “The school board didn’t ask for those increases. They just have to come to us and ask for funds to keep treating locally paid employees just as fairly. We just have to keep an eye on it for the next couple of years. It’s like compounding. It may not be that big of a number now, but it gets bigger as years go by with cost-of-living increases.”

Middle school facilities discussed

The school board is also requesting $1,347,500 for its capital outlay budget to pay for the costs of renovations, repairs, and maintenance. Two items not being requested through the budget process for the coming year are significant improvements to the gymnasiums at the East and West Lee middle schools. Crumpton told the commissioners that because of the large dollar amount involved for those projects, he will be recommending they be considered for funding through the bonding process at a future point.

“(The gyms) are getting old – both were constructed in 1978. The gyms need more seating at both locations. The bleachers are wooden and are not cleanable. The three-point line is located almost at the out of bounds markers because they are not full-sized courts,” he said. “The vision that we have in mind would give each of them a full-sized court with new locker rooms and two new classrooms that could be used for physical education purposes.”

What happens next

School board Chair Sandra Bowen, a Republican, doesn’t begrudge those Lee County teachers who give up their teaching positions in Sanford and Broadway to work instead in other counties. In fact, she said she totally gets it.

“Our county ranks 17th on the list of 116 school districts in the state in terms of the local supplements that are paid,” she said.

Last year, Lee County was 14th on that list.

“Those ahead of us in the supplements they pay to teachers are also those that are to the north of us,” she continued. “It’s simply a geography thing. If I can drive 20 minutes up the road and have $8,000 more in my pocket than what I was getting at home in Lee County, I totally understand why they do it.”

According to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Lee County Schools is second only to Caterpillar as being the largest employer in the county. According to DOC’s data, the district employs more than 1,000 persons, so any decision made by the commissioners in the coming weeks will impact a lot of families.

After the Board of Commissioners’ Republican majority voted last June not to fund the increases in the local supplements, Bryan and his finance office began work on a plan to come up with the funds from another source. They found the necessary dollars contained inside the school board’s allocation of federal ESSER funds and over a series of three meetings, the school board was able to allocate a portion of those resources to cover a bonus.

All full-time teachers and classified staff who were employed as of November 15 received a $2,000 bonus. All permanent part-time employees, again both certified and classified, who worked less than six hours per day and who were employed at of November 15 also received a prorated bonus.

The Board of Commissioners now has just under 40 days to make a decision on funding supplement increases for teachers and staff.

At their next scheduled meeting on June 6, commissioners will hear the proposed allocation of funding and tax rate from Crumpton, and they are expected to take final action to adopt the budget resolution on June 20. According to state law, all counties are required to adopt their budgets before June 30.