As Warren County Schools continues its budget process for 2020-21, its objectives for the upcoming year and beyond will be influenced by an independent financial wellness check which evaluated the state of the district. The resulting report included recommendations about more efficient use of school system resources and identified potential funding sources to address needs.
The check was performed by North Carolina-based School Efficiency Consultants, which helps school districts improve how they use resources so they can more effectively spend funding allocated to them.
The report indicates that Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mary Young requested that SEC evaluate the district to identify its strengths and needs, and make recommendations for improvement.
Current financial status
The wellness check indicates that Warren County Schools used $536,214 of its current expense budget fund balance in 2018-19, leaving $483,728 in unassigned fund balance, or cash reserves not assigned for a specific purpose.
SEC also found a deficit of less than $100,000 in the transportation balance to be closed using local funds. The consulting firm cautioned that the school system’s fund balance is not adequate to ensure that unforeseen expenditures can be covered.
According to the wellness check, the Exceptional Children budget may face a deficit of $225,000. SEC recommended using carryover funds from another source to reduce the deficit.
SEC recommended a freeze on filling vacant positions, and on supplies, repairs and contracted services, with the exception of emergencies, for the rest of the current fiscal year.
Warren County Schools will implement SEC’s suggestion to move from three school calendars to one for the 2020-21 fiscal year to reduce expenses.
SEC identified two potential local funding sources designated for school use only that could “quickly address” school system capital outlay needs: a lottery fund balance of $1.16 million and a county sales tax fund balance restricted for education of $1.79 million. SEC recommends drafting a budget amendment, subject to approval by both the board of education and board of county commissioners, that would allow Warren County Schools to meet a number of capital needs before next school year.
SEC warns that Warren County Schools will need to make major cuts in the 2021-22 budget unless the allotment from the county commissioners shows a significant increase.
Warren County Schools is requesting $6.99 million from the county in fiscal year 2020-21, $1.5 million more than the $5.43 million which the proposed county budget allocates to the school system.
The company states that the school system will need to cut its personnel allotments to schools to come in alignment with the position allotments from the state.
A major component of the financial wellness check involves the transportation budget, including bus drivers and buses.
The report indicates that Warren County Schools currently uses 36 yellow school buses to transport 1,151 students.
SEC recommends several strategies to address a problem of attracting and retaining bus drivers, including the use of strategically-planned double routes to reduce the number of buses and drivers that are needed.
While the school system requires teacher assistants to obtain bus driving licenses, SEC suggests requiring custodial and cafeteria staff to obtain licenses, and allowing teachers to earn licenses in order to drive a morning or evening route. Also recommended is the establishment of pre-determined community bus stop locations for summer programs to reduce mileage and cost for transportation, and simplify communication between staff, parents, bus drivers and school personnel. The report also notes that effective processes should be developed and implemented, and employees held accountable for adhering to those processes and to a “higher level of detail.”
“Attention is needed (in) all areas for transportation to realize operational improvements. Such gains are dependent upon the director and his ability to review/implement updated processes and hold employees accountable,” the report states.
The wellness check indicates that the transportation director serving as a substitute bus driver limits his ability to address daily operational issues.
The report notes that, while paying overtime may not be desired, it may need to be considered until the bus driver crisis, or shortage, subsides. “… getting kids to school on time and ready to learn must be weighed against the cost of overtime,” it states.
The company suggests using capital outlay funds restricted for use by the school system to purchase an activity bus to replace one involved in an accident. Warren County Schools’ proposed 2020-21 budget includes an appropriation of $96,395 in county funds to make such a purchase.
Curriculum and instruction
According to the report, SEC interviewed a number of Central Office representatives. Observations note that some schools offer one-to-one technology for students, while other schools do not. Warren County Schools’ proposed 2020-21 budget notes that the school system is moving toward a one-to-one computer ratio for all students.
In addition, an elementary school principal expressed a need for language arts textbooks. The school system’s proposed budget for the upcoming school year includes a request to the county for $250,000 for textbooks.
SEC reports that some of the district’s schools teach reading by using digital resources, while others use language arts textbooks. The company recommended increasing support for beginning teachers to improve the understanding of how to teach reading standards, and that elementary school teachers use a consistent approach to teach reading.
“There does not appear to be a well-developed understanding on how to teach the reading standards,” the report states.
The company notes that the school system’s literacy planning committee has slowed its work to improve literacy consistency.
SEC recommends that the school system contact Wake County Schools to inquire about what that school system has implemented in elementary schools on reading and writing standards, among other suggestions.
In its proposed 2020-21 budget, Warren County Schools requests $50,000 from the county for its literacy program.
According to the wellness check, the Warren County district’s teacher turnover rate for 2017-18, the highest teacher vacancy rate in the state, at 32.5 percent. The state average for that year was 8.1 percent.
SEC recommends more training for new teachers and instructional coaches at the elementary school level.
Exceptional Children programs
The SEC report indicates that 18.40 percent of students attending Warren County Schools were identified as exceptional children in 2019-20, compared to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction funding cap of 12.75 percent. The school system must make up the difference in funding due to what the report identified as “overidentification.”
SEC notes that the relatively new EC director also serves as program bookkeeper.
“She has encountered multiple issues including several pending legal issues, limited staff … having to contract for all her related service providers … and the need to train EC teachers in reading and math,” the report states.
It also indicates that the EC office uses paper files for student records, and that years’ worth of files are stored in the Central Office attic.
SEC recommends implementing a system of support for kindergarten through grade 12 which could reduce the number of students placed into special education programs.
The company also suggests adding staff members to assist the director, and providing more support and training for EC teachers in reading and math intervention methods.
During recent board of education meetings, Young and board members have indicated that the financial wellness check also will be beneficial as the school system moves forward in the strategic planning process. The system’s current five-year strategic plan covers a period that ends this year.