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Wednesday, 22 May 2013 00:00

Haywood commissioners win political game with school board

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op frHaywood County commissioners drew a line in the sand. The Haywood County School Board decided not to cross it. In a nutshell, that’s what happened. 

But what was interesting was the spoken and unspoken back and forth between the two elected bodies about taxes and spending in this era of tight budgets and tax-hike phobia.

 

As most who follow politics in North Carolina know, school boards have no taxing authority. The school board develops a budget, but then has to pass it on to the county with their hands out, hoping commissioners come up with the money to pay for everything. County commissioners decide how much “local” money — basically property tax and sales tax monies — it will then provide to the school system.

The process can be messy, and in some years it becomes difficult for the two elected bodies — not Haywood in particular, but for school and county boards in every North Carolina county — to remain cordial with each other. Whether it’s replacing leaking roofs, approving supplements for teachers, funding non-revenue sports programs, or just providing money for locally paid teachers, there is often fundamental disagreement. Right now, Macon County is looking at reducing its teacher numbers in order to make up for state revenue losses, and it doesn’t look like commissioners there can come up with the money to offset those salaries.

When there’s disagreement, part of the political game comes down to who the voting public supports. If you win the public relations game, then usually you get what you want. 

Haywood school leaders wanted an extra $500,000 for school resource officers and guidance counselors in elementary schools. Seems lots of school systems are seeking more law enforcement personnel since the Connecticut school shooting.

I’m not of the opinion that armed officers in schools will solve the school safety problems. I tend to agree with Haywood Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, who has been making this point since the additional school resource officers were first discussed in Haywood.

“You have a much better chance of your child being killed or harmed on the way to school,” Kirkpatrick said.

As a father of children who attend pubic schools, I would definitely argue that there is a definite shortage of guidance counselors. From the elementary school on up, there just aren’t enough of these positions to meet the need. These are some of the most over-worked people in the public school system, and they could do much more if there weren’t so few of them forced to work all the time under a “finger in the dyke” scenario.

In this case, when the $500,000 request came to Haywood commissioners, they threw it back at the school board with this addendum: take a formal vote, which will let us know that you support the spending increase even if it means raising property taxes. A tax hike, commissioners said, is the only way to fund the request.

That’s a highly unusual political move. As noted earlier, school board members don’t have taxing authority. In this case, however, Haywood commissioners had found a way to pin a proposed tax hike squarely on the shoulders of a board that can’t tax. 

I understand the county’s reasoning here, but I don’t agree with it. The county board has two former school board members — Mark Swanger and Mike Sorrells — along with the former schools superintendent, Bill Upton. It’s safe to say they understand the inner workings of the school system. The school board, by a 6-to-2 vote, backed down. We’ll never now if the county would have approved a tax hike even if the school board had endorsed it, but that doesn’t matter now.

School board members Rhonda Schandevel and Jimmy Rogers did not back down. They were the two in the 6-2 vote who supported the original budget request. I appreciate their courage, and the fact that they at least stood up for what they believed.

School board members have a responsibility to be prudent about spending. However, in North Carolina school boards can’t raise revenues and therefore can create a spending plan based — within reason — on what students need. It takes some of the politics out of the decision-making. Taking all the politics out of the process is impossible, especially since they are elected. The rest of the school board could have joined Schandevel and Rogers and said just that: “This is our proposal, and we stand by it. It’s up to commissioners to decide if a tax increase is necessary.”

Commissioners, for better or worse, ended up on the winning side of this game of political brinksmanship. Touche´.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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