Earlier this year, school officials presented the Surry County Board of Commissioners with three separate facility studies. An engineering consultant hired by the Surry County Schools, Elkin City Schools and Mount Airy City Schools recommended a combined $173 million in capital improvements to the county’s aging school buildings.
Surry County Board of Commissioners Chairman R.F. “Buck” Golding said that he and fellow commissioners have been grappling with how to fund the $173 million in capital improvements identified by the recent study. Golding said that the only way he believes the county can pay for the improvements would be via a bond referendum.
Golding said that he’s not sure how large the bond might be. “We can’t ask residents for all $173 million,” said Golding, adding that the “shock factor” would push voters to vote the issue down.
Golding also pointed out that Surry County “doesn’t have a great track record with bond issues.” Golding went on to state that if a bond referendum failed, commissioners would still face funding the improvements.
In an explanation from Assistant County Manager Betty Taylor, Taylor stated that until a plan for a bond referendum was set she could not give an accurate estimate as to the impact of a possible bond referendum could impact the county’s property tax rate.
The three school districts serve a combined student population of about 11,000. School funding accounts for $23,527,032 of the appropriations in the current Surry County operating budget, or nearly 32 percent of the county’s budget.
Elsewhere in the state
The Elkin and Mount Airy city school districts make Surry County one of only 13 counties in North Carolina that have more than one public school system. Additionally, only Surry, Catawba, Davidson and Halifax counties have three or more districts.
Prior to 1963 neighboring Forsyth County also had multiple school districts, containing both the Forsyth County and Winston-Salem City Schools. However, the two districts were combined. The consolidated district now serves about 54,000 students, making it North Carolina’s fourth largest district.
Another more recent merger occurred in Cleveland County in 2004, where three districts were merged into one larger county district. However, school officials there did not initiate the merger. Instead, Cleveland County Commissioners ordered the consolidation.
In 2006 a researcher from the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division said that the merger in Cleveland County created $1.3 million in state savings. That analyst went on to note that the state could see $10.8 million in annual savings if each of the counties with multiple districts were to merge their districts into one per county.
Senate Bill 120
The possibility of consolidating school districts here in Surry County was last considered at length in 2007, when the state legislature threatened to only fund one school district in each of the state’s 100 counties. Senate Bill 120 from that General Assembly, which was entitled “Funding Only One School System per County,” ultimately never made it out of committee hearings.
However, the possibility of a forthcoming consolidation ruffled some feathers here in Surry County. Then-Vice Chairman of the Surry County School Board Brian Gates supported the bill. In 2007 Gates said that one county-wide school system “would provide a strong and consistent voice for all students in Surry County.”
At the same March 2007 meeting Gates went on to point to statistics that showed Surry County Schools were providing quality education opportunities at a lesser per pupil expense than the two smaller school systems. Gates stated that he would like to ask Elkin and Mount Airy residents, “what are you actually getting for the additional taxes you’re paying? Because the so-called achievement gap is no longer there.”
The Mount Airy City School board also discussed merger plans, even attempting to make plans to fund the system without state dollars. However, even that board was prepared for a merger.
“It’s better to be prepared than to be caught behind the eight ball,” said board member Kate Appler. Another board member, Allen Burton, agreed saying, “we should have done this a long time ago.”
The Mount Airy Board of Education also lobbied against the bill in Raleigh. Lacking a house companion bill, SB120 and the merger talks died.
Golding said he’s not new to any school district merger discussion. “When I was on the board in 1996 and 1998 we sat all three (superintendents) down,” said Golding. Golding went on to explain that Surry County and Mount Airy school officials weren’t necessarily opposed to a possible merger.
Golding said, however, that the Elkin City Schools and the community of Elkin seemed to be staunchly against any measure that would force the small district to become part of the Surry County school system. Golding said that the talks of mergers ended up making little headway.
“I don’t believe it will happen until the state legislature decides to only fund one school system (per county),” said Golding.
Commissioner Jimmy Miller sang a tune similar to that of Golding. “We’ve looked at this in years past,” remarked Miller, who, like Golding, praised the three school districts for being top districts in the state.
Miller said that in the past officials thought that a consolidation of the three districts wouldn’t bring substantial savings.
That stated, Miller also said that an outside analyst, to his knowledge, has never been hired to perform a consolidation study. Miller said in years past commissioners relied upon numbers produced by school officials, adding that school officials never were in favor of any consolidation plans.
“We talked to a lot of people in the county, and the consensus was that people liked the current (education) system here in Surry County,” said Miller.
In 2007 attorney Fred Johnson, who serves as the attorney for all three of the county’s school districts, stated that there were three ways school systems could be merged. Johnson explained that the first option to begin a merger is for a school system to give up its charter.
Johnson went on to say that the option of forfeiting a school charter would result in the State Board of Education controlling and determining the terms of a merger.
Another option for merging a school district would be for school board members to initiate the merger. According to Johnson’s statements, the Surry County Board of Commissioners would still have to approve the move. However, this way would allow the affected boards of education to decide matters such as the composition of the consolidated district’s school board.
In 2007, Johnson also told the Mount Airy School board that county commissioners could order a merger. According to Johnson’s comments, commissioners would have to include all three systems in the merger. Johnson pointed out that if a school board opted to merge, school officials would remain in control of the merger.
The laws regarding school mergers have changed little over the course of the past eight years, so Johnson’s 2007 statements remain accurate.
The talks today
Given the fact that Surry County’s three school systems don’t seem to be taking any initiative to combine districts, a call for merger would likely have to come from county commissioners.
Miller said that if the schools are in favor of a merger he could support a consolidation measure. However, Miller also said that if a study was completed and showed an “astronomical” amount in possible savings, that study “might change some minds.”
As Miller looked at statistics that pointed to nearly $2 million in expenditures to support central office and school board operations in the Mount Airy district, the commissioner noted “you could have some savings there.”
Miller also pointed out that he and other commissioners only know a county that operates with three systems. “We don’t know how good or bad having one school system could be. We’ve always had three,” said Miller.
“It’s getting very tough to keep the tax rate the same and fund all of these (schools),” said Golding. “After this recession, I don’t feel comfortable talking about raising taxes,” added Golding. Golding said the issue of merging school systems could come up as county and school officials run a possible campaign for a bond referendum.
“You have to look at where we can find duplication,” said Golding, adding that “in some areas there probably is.” Golding added that there is duplication at all levels of government. “I would like to limit that,” said Golding.
Duplication is apparent at a glance into the county’s current schools situation. There are three central offices, three school boards, three superintendents and staffs that support each.
While Elkin City Schools would not release its requested budget figures, a glance at the budgets of the Surry County and Mount Airy districts reflect a number of areas in which duplicity is evident.
At the school board level the two districts, and presumably the Elkin district, each fund $16,000 in workshop expenses, $12,000 in “other professional services,” $4,000 in travel expenses, $19,000 in dues and fees and $8,000 for supplies and food.
A more daunting number is that both the Mount Airy and county school districts fork over $70,000 each for the legal services of attorney Fred Johnson. Additionally, both of those districts appropriate $40,000 for an annual external audit expense.
When all is said and done, a conservative estimate of the price tag on the operations of the Mount Airy Board of Education is $169,000 and the county board is about $217,000. Presumably, the Elkin schools’ budget would reflect a similar number.
Duplicate positions in the central offices of the county’s three school districts are also evident. In the last fiscal year, conservative estimates for central office operations are about $1.7 million in the Mount Airy district and top $4 million in the county district’s central office.
Positions such as superintendent, assistant superintendents, finance officer, director of child nutrition and maintenance director are replicated in all of the county’s school systems.
Andy Winemiller is a staff writer at the Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or [email protected]