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Schools’ request climbs $8.5 million

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SMITHFIELD — The Johnston County Board of Education last week sent a $77.6 million local budget request to county commissioners.

The request for school operations and capital outlay is up 12.44 percent from the current year’s $69 million, but it could have been higher. Interim Superintendent Ben Williams had said the schools needed more than $80 million from commissioners for the year ahead. But the board, in an April meeting, told him to trim that request.

On Tuesday, Williams returned with a spending plan that was down $2.7 million from what he had sought last month. He took most of that money — $1.5 million — from local spending on exceptional children, trimming his request from $6.7 million to $5.2 million. Williams also erased $500,000 for the county’s Restart schools and $650,000 the state says Johnston owes for pensions the board promised to former superintendents.

“That additional savings came through some very, very hard work from many of our departments,” Williams told board members. “Our Exceptional Children’s Department has worked tirelessly to identify ways to become more efficient and cost-effective.”

Williams did not say where the savings in the Exceptional Children’s Department would come from. Unlike for other departments, including transportation and finance, his budget proposal did not spell out spending for exceptional children.

Though the budget request is up substantially from the current year, some savings could be in the works, board member Ronald Johnson said. “We have identified 23 positions that will be eliminated over a 12-month period,” he said, describing them as central office jobs that had no direct impact on classrooms.

“We are in a position where we have to reduce our expenditures,” Johnson said, adding that cutting the 23 positions would save $1.7 million a year. “We are in a position where we need to make cuts, and when I say cuts, I don’t mean shell games. I don’t mean moving positions.”

But Johnson did not identify the 23 positions, and the decision to cut those jobs — or keep them — will fall to the next superintendent, who’s responsible for the day-to-day operation of the schools.

Board member Terri Sessoms said she was thankful that Williams and the board’s finance committee kept the budget focused on the classroom. “While everyone is of value — there is no doubt about it — the most important people are the ones who work on a direct, everyday basis with our children,” she said.

But Sessoms cautioned her fellow board members that the dollars they want from the county and state won’t be the dollars they get. With much of the economy locked down because of the coronavirus virus, government revenue from taxes will be down.

“This will be my fourth recession that I’ve lived through as an educator, and I can tell you how this plays out,” Sessoms said. “There will be more cuts. There’s no way around it.”

“This is a good beginning, but we all need to understand that more cuts will be coming,” Sessoms added. “I just implore that we all keep the classroom foremost in our minds as we move throughout this process.”

Most of the increase in the board’s budget request is in two areas: exceptional children — that’s the $5.2 million — and teacher supplements, which would climb by $3.6 million to $15.4 million in the year ahead.

Board member Mike Wooten said the schools would enter the year ahead with a slight cash cushion because campuses have been closed since mid-March. The board could use that cushion to pay disputed pension obligations if need be, he said.

“I feel like Johnston County is in a good position as far as our spiking-law cases,” Wooten said, referring to the state law that says school boards are responsible if they promise superintendents more in retirement than they earned under the state formula.

Wooten said he thinks the board will be able to use its cash cushion “for the school system and not send it to the state.”