In a rare showing of fiscal discipline, the Dare County Board of Commissioners told the School Board that they must find a way to do more with less when they approved a 2012 budget with no increase to local school funding. While the School Board can only offer a grim assessment of the future of our schools, I suggest that it’s time for the School Board to assess how they spend our money, not just put their hand in the public till for more.

If you read the local papers, you may already be in a state of high anxiety, anticipating that our local schools are on the brink of financial doom. Board of Education Vice-Chair Ben Sproul railed to the Commissioners that without an increase in local funding,

Our children will begin to pay the price

He gave the BOC what he called ‘the cold, hard truth’ saying,

…if we go any deeper, the erosion of our quality of service would accelerate dramatically

Jumping on board, the Editor of Outer Banks Voice opined that he’d be happy to pay more in taxes if it would spare us

…overcrowded classrooms and people losing jobs

After all, he said,

They are our children and our responsibility.

Such high drama! Such prognostications from the ruling class! How dare we shortchange the children!

Here’s the cold hard truth. Our children are far from being shortchanged, at least in terms of dollars spent. Dare County’s per pupil spending is among the highest in the state. Our county proudly boasts in its Annual Budget document of being ranked Numero Uno in local per pupil funding in North Carolina. We’ve held that honorable distinction for at least nine years.  The county’s funding of our local schools has increased nearly 100% in a decade from $10M in 2001 to almost $20M this year while enrollment has increased by a meager 4-5%.

ADM is enrollment. Does not include add'l $775,000 for School Nurses & Resource Officers. From the Dare County Budget FY 2011, Page 13

Overall, In 2009 we ranked 9th in the state out of 115 in combined federal, state and local per pupil funding, spending $11,011 per student.  Our current budget is over $50,000,000.  Cuts in federal and state funding may leave the schools with a budget that is 3-4% smaller than last year, bringing per pupil spending down by about $400.  The Superintendent warns that cuts that deep will result in teacher layoffs and the incoming Board Chairman forecasts a dire future for our children.  I suggest that while budget cuts might be painful, they do not have to affect quality.

But wait, you say, doesn’t more money mean better schools?  A tiny little tax increase won’t hurt anyone.  After all, it’s for the children. I suggest that it is an insult to the fine teachers of Dare County to imply that they cannot deliver a quality education on a per pupil budget of $10,600.  I suggest that the highest performing school districts are not the most well funded.  Other counties are able to rank as favorably as Dare on much smaller budgets.

The NC DPI annually ranks schools on their performance using the ABC ranking. ABC stands for Accountability, teaching the Basics and local Control. Here’s how Dare stacks up with their neighbors to the north.

Ranking range: 1-100. ABC rankings source: ABCs of Public Education database for 2009-2010. Per pupil spending source: NC Schools Profle for 2008-2009.

Somehow Camden and Currituck manage to spend 17-20% less per student yet still achieve the same high level of performance. But what about SAT scores? Don’t our SAT scores prove that we need to maintain this extraordinarily high level of funding? Not necessarily. Take a look at Carteret County which ranks comparably to Dare in terms of SAT scores and ABC performance.

SAP scores source: NC 2010 SAT Report

Clearly, a quality education, on the order of which we’ve become accustomed, can be achieved on a smaller budget.  The question is:  Can our local school officials figure out how to trim the budget without trimming the quality of education?  If they can’t fathom how to do that, send them on a field trip to reality.  Send them to Currituck or Camden or Carteret to see how it’s done.