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County giving schools more money

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SMITHFIELD — County commissioners last week extended a financial lifeline to Johnston’s public schools, agreeing to give them an extra $950,000 a month to close a gap between spending and revenue.

The county will give the schools that amount in February, March, April and May. In June, commissioners will decide what amount, if any, to give the schools to close out the budget year.

School board Chairman Todd Sutton, in an email on Feb. 4, thanked commissioners for the commitment of extra dollars. “I am every appreciative of the commissioners assisting us with additional funding so that our staff can concentrate on their students and not worry about their job being affected,” he said.

Interim superintendent Ben Williams was equally appreciative. “On behalf of Johnston County Public Schools, I would like to extend a sincere thank you to the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, the Johnston County Board of Education and the Johnston County Board of Education Finance Committee for working together to secure the funds needed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year,” he said in a letter to employees on Feb. 4.

Sutton said he thought the extra $950,000 a month would suffice, though it’s well short of the $8.9 million former interim superintendent Jim Causby said the schools needed. “Based on all of the information the finance committee has reviewed, we should be in good shape,” he said.

No commissioner opposed giving the schools the extra money. (Commissioners Jeff Carver and Butch Lawter were out of town on Monday.) Where they differed was whether to order an independent audit of the school system’s finances.

Commissioners Chairman Ted Godwin called an independent audit unnecessary. “I think we’re wasting taxpayers’ money,” he said. “They’ve had an audit. It’s not been a question of if somebody’s stolen money or anything like that. I think it’s really a product of the budget process,”

Commissioner Chad Stewart disagreed with Godwin. “With all due respect, Mr. Chairman, people might think we’re wasting $6 million,” he said, referring to the possible total of supplemental school funding.

Stewart argued that the board should tie the additional dollars to an independent audit, saying it could help the schools avoid a financial crisis in the future. “I think commissioners, along with this money, should hire a group ... to make sure that we’re not in this situation again,” he said. “I think the school system would encourage that also.”

Commissioner Tony Braswell said the board had an obligation to both the county’s schools and its taxpayers. “The taxpayers expect a couple of things,” he said. “No. 1, I think they expect that if the school system needs money to pay their bills, we should give them money,” he said. “But also, I think the taxpayers expect us to be wise spenders of our money and ensure that what the money goes to is for what they really need.”

Commissioner Patrick Harris agreed, saying taxpayers have a right to know what happened to the school system’s cash reserves. “I think the citizens have expectations that we’re going to be wise stewards of their money,” he said. “And I think it’s very important that we determine what happened.”

“I know you can’t un-ring the bell,” Harris added. “But I think we need to ensure to the citizens that we never find ourselves in this position again.”

Since the school system’s budget crisis became public, some Johnstonians have argued that commissioners need to up their ante on school spending. Others have said taxpayers are doing all they can for the county’s schools.

Harris said it’s a debate worth having. “We’ve got to have a realistic expectation of what’s sustainable for this county,” he said. “I really look forward to next year’s budget, that we can sit down and have some realistic conversations and transparency, that we can all get on the same page.”

But once county and school leaders agree on a realistic budget, that should be it, Harris said. “Coming back for more and coming back for more and coming back for more is not an acceptable way to manage,” he said.

Godwin agreed with Harris. “I think the key is going to be in the budget process,” he said. “The key is getting to the right number at the right time and sticking to it.”