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Commissioners take no action on schools’ $8.9 million request

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SMITHFIELD ­— Johnston County Commissioners on Dec. 2 made no promise to close a nearly $9 million gap in the public schools’ budget.

Interim Superintendent Jim Causby appeared before commissioners at their morning meeting and asked for roughly $8.9 million to keep the public schools operating. Commissioners expressed support for the schools but took no action on Causby’s plea for more money. Chairman Ted Godwin said the board would take it under advisement.

Commissioner Larry Wood expressed frustration with the schools’ request, which is up substantially from what commissioners approved in June for 2019-20 school operations. “I just wonder where it ends,” he said, before suggesting that the schools should turn to the state for help. “It seems like you’re knocking at the wrong door. How much more money do we need to throw at Johnston County Public Schools to solve its problems?”

Causby said he apologized for having to come before the board. “In 37 years as a school superintendent, this is the first time I’ve had to appear and seek additional revenue,” he said. “After I worked through other issues, I studied the budget as much as possible.”

Those other issues included whether to reinstate Clayton High School Principal Bennett Jones after former Superintendent Ross Renfrow transferred Jones without explanation in August. Causby reinstated him.

Causby outlined the school district’s needs and earned applause from most commissioners for his transparency.

“I’ve never brought you bad numbers,” Causby said. “I commend you on all you’ve done.”

Causby said his staff had located $8 million in cuts and that the revised 2019-20 local budget need was $76.8 million, up from the $67.9 million that commissioners had allocated for school operations.

“At that time, the need we came up within the current budget ... was $83,868,550 needed to fund all of these things for this year. That was after all those other reductions,” Causby said. “We then began to look at some other reductions of $7,048.203, with the effort of keeping it as far away from the schools as possible and also not having anyone lose employees.”

But Causby said some reductions would affect the entire school system. “Unfortunately, when you’re talking these big numbers, there are some things that affect all aspects of the school system,” he said. “So we’re not happy with any of them, but they are things we think we can live with.”

Causby said the difference between local budget needs and the current Johnston County allocation for schools was $8.9 million.

“These are numbers I recommend to you that we stay with,” Causby said. “As the board, you certainly have the authority to change if you want to, but we worked pretty darn hard to be able to identify these areas. We’ve reviewed every single thing we could find to review.”

Causby tied part of the 2019-20 increase to the needs of the exceptional children’s program. “We have 17 percent of our students designated as exceptional children,” he said. “The state pays for up to 14 percent of EC students. We’ve received no funds from the state because the General Assembly hasn’t approved a budget.”

Causby said the school district hasn’t studied the EC program to see if it’s qualifying students who shouldn’t be labeled as exceptional. “But once students are admitted to the program, they can’t be removed,” he said.

Godwin said some Johnstonians think the school system has too many people in the central office, but Commissioner Chad Stewart said the central office has always been the public’s whipping boy.

“At what cost do we keep things operating?” Stewart said.

Causby promised to continue looking for savings. “We’ll do everything we can to reduce costs,” he said.

Commissioner Butch Lawter wondered why the budget shortfall was just now coming to light. “I can’t believe there wasn’t a yellow flag raised concerning this budget,” he said.

Causby said he had found no malfeasance in the schools’ spending. “We’ve investigated and studied the audits over the past two years,” he said. “The previous administration did nothing illegal or improper. As far as whether or not there were things they shouldn’t have done, I can’t answer.”

After the meeting, Wood said if the schools’ request had come to a vote on Monday, he would have cast a resounding no. “There are too many questions which need to be answered by the school board before I’ll feel comfortable,” he said. “I’ve met with board members, one on one and in groups, and I get the same vague answers to my questions. I need more.”