While we reject the notion that more money is the fix for every governmental problem, it’s easy to accept that lack of money is plaguing the Public Schools of Robeson County.
According to a report by the Public School Forum of North Carolina and detailed today in staff writer Sarah Willets’ Page 1A story, the local school system spent $484 of local money on each student for the 2011-12 school year, $1,000 less than the state average. Only Swain County spent less. The study, by the way, was done by county, and not school systems, of which there are 115.
Robeson County, for the 2011-12 school year that was examined, did receive $738 per student in low-wealth money from the state, but still had to operate on a much tighter budget than did peer systems across North Carolina. As an extreme comparison, consider that Orange County spent almost $9,200 per student for the studied school year.
The problem locally is obvious. Robeson County has an undervalued tax base, and we have one of the highest property tax rates in North Carolina at 77 cents for every $100 of value, which effectively puts us in a box. The county Board of Commissioners can’t consider a property tax rate without risking a Boston Tea Party, and other options are limited.
Another worry is the lingering threat of more education cuts in Raleigh, where Republicans are firmly in control of the General Assembly and the governor’s office.
It has been demonstrated for years that Robeson County students lag behind their peers in pretty much every yardstick when it comes to education, except the drop-out rate, where a surge in recent years has put us at about the state average. There is much that conspires against us here, our high-minority population and the number of single-parent homes sitting atop a long list.
That raises the need not only for good teachers, but exceptional teachers who can reach at-risk children and make them understand that poverty isn’t a life sentence. But this county is at a severe disadvantage when trying to recruit those teachers as there is not sufficient local money for competitive supplements and moving expenses.
So what is needed is out-of-the-box thinking such as was proposed by Dwayne Smith, a member of the local school board. Smith would like to see a $200 transfer fee for families who want their child attending school out of district. According to Smith, there are about 2,000 students in Robeson County attending school out of district currently, meaning the fee would have raised about $400,000 this year. That money, as one example, could be placed in an endowment and used to help recruit new teachers, perhaps by giving them a relocation stipend or a signing bonus.
Unfortunately, Robeson is a county that has historically not valued education, so the notion of raising revenue to prop up our schools would not necessarily be well-received by voters who don’t grasp that they are already picking up the bill for high crime, high unemployment and a local dependence on welfare.
So we don’t expect any candidates for office, either the Board of Commissioners or the Board of Education, to step forward with new ideas on how more local money can be raised for our school system.
That doesn’t mean, however, we can’t ask these candidates that question.