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Johnston County Public Schools faces $10 million shortfall

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SMITHFIELD — Interim Superintendent Jim Causby told school board members Oct. 8 that Johnston County Public Schools needs $10 million to get through the 2019-20 school year. Board member Todd Sutton expressed disappointment in former Superintendent Ross Renfrow’s handling of the district’s finances.

“Where our fund balance was close to $10 million a few years ago, it’s now down to $330,000 of usable income,” said Causby. “We have barely enough to pay the bills when they come in. It’s not a pleasant situation. We’re working to make some reductions. We’re short $10 million to get through this year.”

Causby said he met with Johnston County Manager Rick Hester last week.

“The commissioners are seriously considering where we are and I believe they’re willing to help,” said Causby.

Hester expressed support for the school district.

“We had a great discussion,” said Hester. I’m sure we will be talking some more over the next few weeks.”

Johnston County Board of Commissioners Chairman Ted Godwin also was supportive.

“We will obviously review any requests with an open mind and a spirit of cooperation,” said Godwin. “ We will review all financial aspects and try to do what’s right for our schools and all our citizens.”

Causby said it’s not the time for finger-pointing regarding the district’s finances.

“I don’t want people to get panicked by it, but I wanted them to know what the facts are. We want to be as open with things as we can,” said Causby. “Sometimes, there are things we can’t be open with. Multiple things caused that and I’m not going to point fingers or get into any of that with it. We’ve been spending more than we’ve got and we’re depleted.”

Another reason for the shortfall, said Causby, is the district’s exceptional children program.

“The state of North Carolina funds us for 12.75% of our student population in that program,” said Causby. “We have 17%, and that’s about 30% more than what we get funded for. Our shortage in that program, when you take the federal funds and state funds that flow for that, is about $12 million. I’ve identified in the state budget $4 million that we can put in that, but that still leaves us with $8 million, and that $8 million is a big part of that $10 million that I mentioned.”

Causby said the central office cabinet has committed to cut $5 million out of the school budget. Causby said he’d make every effort to avoid cutting individual schools’ and classrooms’ budgets.

Sutton blamed Renfrow for the school district’s shortfall.

“I would just like to say I’m extremely disappointed in our previous superintendent,” said Sutton. “As a board member, I can only act on the information that’s presented to me.

“We’re not here on a daily basis. Therefore, we rely on the information that’s presented to us in a boardroom, and I’m just very disappointed.”

Board member Terri Sessoms said she agreed with Sutton.

“Dr. Causby, I want to thank you for being honest with us,” said Sessoms. “We know we can only make good decisions based on the information we’re presented. While this isn’t a message we wanted to hear, at least we know where we are, and I want to thank you for that.”

“Unfortunately, when stuff like this is discovered, you have to make a change and make some tough decisions,” said board member Ronald Johnson. “The Board of Education has done that. And unfortunately, we found the discrepancies. But fortunately, we’ve got the right one piloting the plane now. Dr. Causby is a decision-maker. He’s going to come in and make some tough decisions and you may like them, you may dislike them.”

Johnson there are “internet trolls” and “keyboard warriors” on social media who like to see Johnston County Public Schools in conflict.

“These are the people who get real tough when they’re behind the computer screen keyboard,” said Johnson. “Line up to throw your stones now, but be sure you get back in line when we fix this problem. Keep the same enthusiasm you have right now when you come back a year later and we’ve got the ship on the right course.”

“We appreciate you, Dr. Causby,” said board member Teresa Grant. “ We appreciate your leadership, we appreciate your transparency, that you’re not only willing to share with this board, but you’re willing to share with the county commissioners and with the public.”

Vice Chairwoman Peggy Smith worked with Causby during his earlier tenure as school superintendent.

“You will see that steady at the helm leadership style, and for that I am so thankful,” said Smith. “I’m thankful to this board for inviting Dr. Causby to come and for his accepting that offer.

Chairman Mike Wooten said Johnston County Public Schools is blessed to have Causby.

“We’re rolling on the bus with you to get to where we need to be,” said Wooten. “We’re blessed to have you here and look forward to having you here. I’m excited about the days ahead. No, it’s not good news, but I know we’re going to get where we need to be.”