Surry County is facing an almost insurmountable challenge. The county’s three school systems — Mount Airy, Surry County, and Elkin — have asked for a combined $173 million for what they claim are absolutely needed capital improvements.
That figure is almost two-and-a-half times the entire annual budget for Surry County. While county officials can’t say how much this would add to local tax bills, the county says each penny on the 58 cent tax rate equals about $472,000. Some admittedly rough and simplistic calculations show that if $173,000 million in bonds were paid back over a ten-year period, the principle alone would cost $17.3 million a year, requiring a real estate tax rate hike of more than 36 cents per $100 of assessed value.
How many county residents could afford a county tax rate of 94 cents?
What’s the county — which means the individual taxpayers living in Surry County — to do?
There is no simple answer. School administrators seem to believe the requests are the final word — they have a study which shows what they need, thus the only question is how to pull the money out of taxpayers.
We don’t necessarily think this is the case. What county commissioners should do next is to find a truly independent firm that can put together a comprehensive study to determine if the county could realize substantial savings by merging the districts into a single system.
Don’t misunderstand us. We’re not calling for the consolidation of the school systems, because we don’t have enough information to say whether that’s a good idea. Neither do the school superintendents, the school boards, nor the county commissioners.
That’s the point.
A cursory study of the school budgets of Mount Airy and Surry County — Elkin’s school system would not supply us with their budget figures as we requested — shows the potential for hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual savings, potentially millions, if the duplication of school board and central office functions between the systems were eliminated.
Conservative estimates for school board expenses alone account for somewhere between $169,000 and $217,000 each, and we have three separate school boards operating at that level.
Central offices include three superintendents, multiple assistant superintendents, managers over multiple departments duplicated between the systems, numerous employees working in support and custodial positions in the central offices…the list could go on. Total central office expenditures in Mount Airy are around $1.7 million a year. That figure is a staggering $4 million in Surry County, and in Elkin, well, again, Elkin would not release those figures (though admittedly, some of that money is state funds, rather than direct local money).
There is also the question of whether some facilities could be closed in a consolidated school system. There are several school buildings in Mount Airy and Surry County within just a few miles of one another, schools that conceivably could be combined in ways that could eliminate the operation of one or two facilities. Eliminating the cost of keeping a building in operation, along with the necessary support staff, could again save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Maybe millions.
That doesn’t even begin to address the capital expense needs — if a school building, or two, are shuttered, that cost goes down as well.
Mount Airy Superintendent Greg Little points out that a school system’s operating budget is largely dependent upon student population, and one consolidated school system would have the same number of students as the three smaller systems.
However, it’s clear quite a bit of savings could be realized with a larger, consolidated school district, money that could be used to pay for the needed capital upgrades. If just $5 million could be saved from a consolidated central office and school board, using the county’s figure of $472,000 per 1 cent of tax rate, that could knock more than 10 cents off of any tax hike.
How much in total could be saved with a consolidation? What’s the trade-off? Would that really hurt the quality of education?
Those are questions no one locally can answer. School superintendents are administrators, and administrators count among their duties as protecting their turf. School board members and county commissioners are politicians, which means many of their decisions are based on what’s likely to get them re-elected, often the path of least resistance.
And the residents of Surry County, the people who are ultimately going to have to dig into their pockets and pay for any capital expense, deserve to know all sides of the issue, not just information spun by school or county officials in a way to highlight their desired outcome.
Already county commissioners and school superintendents have spoken of issuing bonds via referendum to pay for the capital expenses, they’ve even shared a few brief strategy comments on how to best present the bonds in a manner that will gain voter approval.
If voters are going to be asked to go to the polls for a referendum to pay for the expenses, they deserve to be fully informed on all the issues, including alternatives to the present three-system arrangement which exists in Surry County.
And that means an independent study done by an outside firm to determine how much could be saved with a consolidated school system.