Mount Airy City Schools is asking for the return of a supplemental tax for school needs.
Several school officials, as well as a couple of members of the city Board of Education, met with county commissioners Thursday night to discuss educational funding.
Earlier in the week, the school board met to discuss two big renovation projects that could cost as much as $5.68 million. School officials shared their studies with the county and also discussed annual funding.
The city once had a supplemental tax rate of 14 cents per $100 of valued property, and the city is looking to restore that supplement at a rate of 12 cents. That would bring in about a quarter of a million dollars per year, noted Dr. Kim Morrison, superintendent.
Finance Officer Sarah Bowen said with city and county taxes included, the total tax burden on city residents would come to a rate of $1.18 per $100.
“I really believe our parents and constituents believe it is worth it,” said Morrison.
Commissioner Larry Phillips said Elkin also is asking for a special tax, but he wonders if this is the best time.
Phillips has led the charge in pushing for state legislation that would allow Surry County to use Article 43 to collect sales tax for education purposes. A quarter of a cent could produce about $2 million a year, or $4 million with a half-cent.
If the General Assembly approves the Article 43 use, Surry County would still have to put the issue to a vote on the next ballot.
If Elkin and Mount Airy get a special property tax now, there’s no way the public is going to vote for a sales-tax increase, too, he reasoned. The county board passing a property tax could be shooting itself in the foot on Article 43.
With $170 million in school needs in the Powell study from four years ago, the county and its taxpayers are pushed to support all these expenses, Phillips said. At what point do the schools have to start dialing it back, he asked.
The city schools are already working on reducing operating expense, said Morrison.
This school year already, the district has cut $266,000, said Morrison.
Some of that savings came from filling spots with non-certified personnel instead of better-paid certified workers for things like accountability specialists and media specialists, Morrison said in an interview Friday.
“We also checked every program to see if it was necessary to our success. If it wasn’t we cut it,” she said. “We also saved over $50,000 at least by cutting our substitute costs down.”
The district expects to put about $100,000 into fund balance this fiscal year.
Morrison praised the work of Audra Chilton, director of financial services, and others in the central office.
“Audra and the team thought through every decision to be as fiscally responsible as possible,” she said, without penalizing the students.
The school district wants to maintain innovative technology and keeping class sizes small, she said. If House Bill 13 doesn’t pass — giving some flexibility on class sizes — the city may have to add five more teachers for grades K-3, which might mean hiring new teachers or shifting some teachers from higher grades to the lower ones.
That could have a significant impact on class sizes at Jones Intermediate for the fourth and fifth grades, she said. If teachers are cut or transferred from the middle grades, there could be 30 or more students in a class for the remaining teachers in order to meet stricter state guidelines at the starting grades (16 to 18 kids per class in K-3).
Since the state hasn’t provided additional funds to pay for these smaller K-3 class sizes, Phillips said, “You’ve got nowhere else to go, I understand that.”
There was a time when local government typically paid for schools and buses, and the state funded the operating costs of schools, Phillips noted. These days, 98 percent of capital expenditures come from local taxes, and yet 24 percent of operating costs also come from the county.
After discussing operational expenses, the county board heard of three projects the city wants funded. That covered the former Pike headquarters on Riverside Drive, the Career Technical Education building at the high school, and the tennis courts at the high school.
Chairman Eddie Harris said he had been advocating for the city schools getting the Pike building for years. Still, he said the board would have to huddle up with the finance office to try to figure out if there is any way to get this money now, without hurting the fund balance.
Last month the board discussed borrowing $30 million to fund capital projects. With a price tag of $1.8 million on the Pike building, the board wondered if this was something that could be put off until the $30 million is in hand.
The $1.8 million is based on 2018 building costs, which are expected to rise, noted Morrison. Starting sooner would actually save money.
Also, the roof needs replacing, and water continues to leak inside, she added. Inspectors found mold there before, and it was treated, but now some surface mold has come back because of the moisture. It would be better to jump on this now.
Commissioner Buck Golding pointed out that it might make sense to fund the new roof and demo work on the inside now, even if the rest of the work has to be put off a little while.
Once the central office moves out of its current location, the county could sell that property to recoup of its expenses, Morrison noted.
She also noted that the tennis court issue has been put off a few times in recent years, but it has become critical now. The girls tennis team will not be able to play home matches this fall if something isn’t done about the cracks and broken surface.
Last year the city schools asked for $225,000 from the county, along with a $50,000 commitment from the city in order to work on both the high school and middle school tennis facilities. This year, Morrison said she was dropping the request for the middle school because the high school was a greater need.
After the meeting ended Thursday night, Phillips went on social media to give thanks to the relationships between county officials and educational leaders.
“One thing I’m most appreciative of is the ability of our county commissioners and school officials to sit down and have tough conversations openly and honestly. No demonizing, no attacking, no political posturing, just real honest conversation,” he wrote.
County commissioners are going through a series of budget workshops with the final decisions on a budget not expected for at least another month.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.