Money (copy)

GREENSBORO — Guliford County budget makers heard earnest pleas Monday from local school leaders for an additional $6 million to keep the system on par with other urban school districts across North Carolina.

The extra money is needed partly because state government has not provided enough to cover the district’s increased costs to improve salaries and benefits for teachers and other personnel, they told the Guilford County Board of Commissioners during an afternoon work session on the county’s 2019-20 budget.

“We’re seeing other counties that are approving significant increases in school funds,” said Angie Henry, Guilford Schools’ chief financial officer.

Henry noted that Mecklenburg County leaders boosted the Charlotte-based school system’s budget for next year by nearly $50 million. And Wake County added $45 million to Raleigh-area schools’ bottom line, while Forsyth County plans to provide $8 million more in the next budget that takes effect July 1.

By contrast, Guilford County’s initial budget recommendation would provide $4 million more than the system’s current budget, a proposed $206.6 million for next year versus $202.6 million in the current budget.

Guilford schools’ formal request seeks a total increase of $10 million for its operating needs, or $212.6 million.

The lower figure in County Manager Marty Lawing’s recommended budget of $627.4 million for all departments puts the district in a bind, which stems partly from state government mandates that increase teacher pay and other costs without providing sufficient money to meet those additional demands, Superintendent Sharon Contreras said.

She told the board that if the schools are to meet such goals as narrowing the achievement gap between “black and Latino students and their white peers,” the Guilford system must be better funded.

“If we want to be the highest performing school district in the state, we must close the achievement gap,” Contreras said.

The commissioners have faced criticism in recent weeks for failing to provide all the money that Guilford educators sought for 2019-20. At a public hearing on the proposed county budget last week, many speakers urged the board to increase the school’s allotment.

Lawing unveiled his recommended budget for all county departments several weeks ago, depicting it as a cautious spending plan to fit a time when county sales and property taxes are not producing enough revenue to meet growing demands on county coffers.

School officials also initially sought $6 million more than Lawing’s recommended amount for building maintenance and other capital spending. But that gap was not the focus of Monday’s discussion.

Commissioners are split between those who want to start tackling the school’s substantial needs immediately with an annual budget increase and those who would prefer a larger-scale response providing enough money to make a major dent in the schools’ needs.

The broad-brush approach would require a countywide referendum in which voters would be asked to approve a major bond issue or an increase in the county sales tax earmarked for school improvements.

Lawing told the board Monday that a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax could generate $16 million to $17 million per year that the board could agree to apply in full or part to the schools.

“To me, that’s a fairer tax across the board,” Commission Chairman Alan Branson said of the sales tax.

By contrast, Lawing said the county would reap an additional $5.17 million per year by adding a penny to the current property tax rate of 73.05 cents per $100 of taxed value, he said.

Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston said last week that he planned to propose a one-cent hike in the property tax to help the school system make ends meet.

The manager’s recommended budget serves as the starting point for community discussion and commissioner debate. County staff prepares it knowing that the elected board likely will adjust the bottom line based on political debate and what they hear from constituents.

Budget work sessions give county department heads the chances to explain their proposed piece of the overall budget. And they allow the schools and other county agencies a chance to make their case for more money than proposed in the manager’s initial recommendation.

The commissioners also heard Monday from Guilford Technical Community College, which is seeking $2.1 million more than included in the recommended budget for building improvements.

Sheriff Danny Rogers and his staff sought an additional $244,000 to buy new vehicles for seven school resource officers whose existing county-owned cars are worn out.

They also sought approval to use $189,000 from a Guilford County Jail account to retain a promising program to help inmates break free of the cycle of crime that led to their imprisonment.

Board members debated the proposals vigorously, but made no final decisions and scheduled another budget work session for Monday afternoon.

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Contact Taft Wireback at 336-373-7100 and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.