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County should rescue schools, but just once

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Johnston County’s interim superintendent of schools, Jim Causby, has said the school system’s budget deficit is not the result of criminal mischief. In other words, no one in the public schools lined his or her personal pockets with tax dollars meant for classrooms.

But clearly, the public schools have been spending beyond their means, and it’s instructive to know how and why: Simply put, the schools have been spending their savings on recurring expenses, and now those savings are essentially depleted.

Here’s how a school budget works: Most money for schools in Johnston and other counties comes from the state. But every year, county commissioners here and elsewhere give their schools local dollars, mostly to cover both needs and wishes the state doesn’t pay for. The local dollars pay the schools’ utility bills, for example, but they also hire teachers to lower class size, among other things.

Every year of course, Johnston’s schools ask for more than the county eventually appropriates. (Critics of county commissioners say Johnston can and should do more for the schools. Supporters of commissioners say they’re giving the schools what Johnston taxpayers can afford.) But the point is that in years past, school leaders lowered their preferred spending — cut their budgets — when commissioners gave them less than what they had sought. But at some point, the schools began spending their savings to cover what county dollars did not.

That would have been fine if the schools had used their savings to pay for one-time expenses, say, the repair of a leaky roof. Instead, the schools have been drawing down their savings to cover recurring expenses, including salaries, according to school board candidates who have been brushing up on the budget deficit in advance of the coming election.

One school board hopeful tells us that county commissioners had told school leaders they would have to dip into their then-considerable savings if they wanted to pay for more than the county could afford. Again, it’s fair to debate whether commissioners — whether taxpayers — are funding the schools at an adequate level. And if commissioners did indeed encourage the schools to spend their savings, perhaps that was unwise advice. But it’s true too that schools didn’t have to accept that advice, and they certainly didn’t have to spend savings on recurring expenses.

In a fundamental way, a school system is like a household. It has income, some of which it socks away if it’s smart, and it has expenses, some that come around every month, like the light bill, and some that occur occasionally, like the need to replace a faulty water heater.

Smart households use their savings to pay for one-time expenses like that faulty water heater. Poorly managed ones use their savings to pay their monthly light bill, or worse yet, their cable TV bill, which is certainly a wish, not a need.

If the schools have been spending their savings on recurring expenses — and the threat of layoffs suggests they have — that was irresponsible, no matter how well intentioned the spending, and it’s good that the interim superintendent has already cut millions in planned spending the schools can clearly not afford.

But Causby has also gone to commissioners seeking $8.9 million he says the schools need to avoid layoffs of people who affect the lives of children. The request gives us pause because we don’t know if commissioners should reward the school board for driving its budget off a cliff. But as another school board candidate rightly notes, the budget shortfall is not the fault of teachers, teacher assistants and others who work directly with students, and those employees should not lose their jobs because of spending mistakes made by a now-retired superintendent and the school board that paid him to leave.

But any additional appropriation from county commissioners should come with a stern warning that the lifeline is a one-time rescue and that the schools must return to living within the county’s means.