The benefits of a comprehensive overhaul for North Carolina’s school funding system are “at best, ambiguous,” says a new report from the state’s top lobbying outfit for public school administrators.
Officials with the N.C. Association of School Administrators (NCASA) turned over their weighty report to state lawmakers Wednesday , with legislators on a joint task force still gathering feedback on a possible K-12 funding model facelift in the coming months.
NCASA leaders said they consulted superintendents, finance chiefs and experts from across North Carolina in developing their recommendations, which, above all, emphasized that legislators’ policy and overall funding decisions are of greater import than the type of funding model they ultimately choose.
“We want to be collaborative and helpful in picking the (model) that is the most optimal for serving students in all parts of our state,” said NCASA Executive Director Katherine Joyce.
The report arrives with much at stake for the state’s local school systems, as a Republican-dominated panel  seeks ways to either patch holes in North Carolina’s complicated K-12 funding allocation structure, or create an entirely new system.
Lawmakers convened the task force last year after a nonpartisan state study alleged deficiencies and inequities in the allocation system , which relies on multiple funding formulas and spending categories for K-12 needs such as teachers, supplies and more.
Republican leaders have been reluctant to commit to any direction for the panel, although they’re expected to consider a weighted, “student-based” funding method, which sets a base amount for students and attaches additional funds for children in need of additional support, such as children with special needs or children hailing from low-income families.
According to the NCASA report, there’s no guarantee such a funding system would alleviate any K-12 funding fissures.
“The existence of a weighted student funding model does not prevent a state’s finance system from becoming inadequate, inequitable, or overly complicated, just as North Carolina’s resource allocation model does not preclude this state from having a system that is adequate, equitable and transparent,” the report said.
This week’s report also urged “hold-harmless” provision to protect districts from funding cuts under any new funding model, as well as continued support for position allotments, rather than dollar allotments. With position allotments, advocates say, small and rural districts—which often struggle to recruit and retain teachers—can net top teaching candidates without worrying about the budget implications.
Any new method should also be bundled with frequent adjustments, as well as periodic reviews of the overall system, the study adds.
The task force’s co-chair, Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said Wednesday that the report should be “very useful” to lawmakers, but he emphasized that the committee won’t be making any decisions “in the immediate future.”
“We’re not going to accomplish this quickly, nor should we,” said Horn. “We have to be contemplative to come up with the right decisions for North Carolina, whether it be in Wake County or Edenton or Chowan County.”
Many of the study’s recommendations, which included calls for a review of adequate funding levels and abundant flexibility, echoed those shared by school district administrators who gave their testimony to the legislative task force this week.
Local school leaders say legislators should restore previously held allowances for districts to shuffle resources as needed at the local level, rather than setting state-mandated guidelines for how dollars are spent.
That idea seemed to resonate with top Republicans this week, with Sen. Jerry Tillman, an influential Randolph County Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, telling one speaker, Cleveland County Schools Superintendent Stephen Fisher, that he would back “total flexibility,” with the exception of certain mandated federal programs.
“We’re not telling you what to hire, because you know what you need in Cleveland County,” Tillman said.
“Amen to the sermon delivered by Sen. Tillman. I think flexibility is clearly the way to go,” chimed in Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Burke County Republican who co-chairs a House K-12 budget committee. “Handcuffing from Raleigh seems to me the very antithesis of trying to personalize things for individual students.”
Legislators did not, however, respond to repeated calls Wednesday for members to mull the adequacy of the state’s school funding amount. That’s a frequent criticism of the panel’s work , although the committee’s leadership has said multiple times that the sufficiency of K-12 funding is a separate issue.
School administrators also seemed united on a handful of additional wish list items, including calls for the state to lift its spending cap on students with special needs.
Officials say state law, which limits per-student funding for children with special needs to 12.5 percent of the student population, leaves more than half of North Carolina’s 115 school districts having to make up the difference.
Jeff Hollamon, chief finance officer for Onslow County Schools, said roughly 14 percent of his district’s students are considered children with special needs, although the funding cap leaves only a portion funded.
“That results in a major loss of funding for Onslow County Schools,” said Hollamon.
Administrators and K-12 advocates also urged legislators to separate funding for local school systems and charters. A frequent point of tension, local systems are charged with passing along a portion of state school dollars to charters serving students within their district, but charters and systems frequently bicker over that amount.
Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the N.C. School Boards Association, which represents local boards across the state, said school district and charter funding needs to be “financially disentangled.”
Agreed, says Rob Jackson, superintendent of Edenton-Chowan Schools in eastern North Carolina. Jackson said charter funding should flow directly from the state and not through local districts.
“That would be easier for us and easier, I think, for the charters as well,” he said.
Winner also talked of the “extremely blurry” division of K-12 spending responsibilities between local and state governments. Historically, state districts have paid for local infrastructure, while the state funded current, operating expenses.
Today, however, Winner said districts are spending more than $3 billion per year on current expenses.
Asked by a legislator how local boards are responding to the task force’s ongoing work, Winner compared their reaction to viewers of a television show.
“You’re on episode two or three right now,” she said. “They’re waiting to see the more exciting episodes, 9 or 10, and then you’ll see the reaction.”
Lawmakers are expected to continue their work on the panel through the year, although it remains to be seen when they will make any official recommendations.