The disparity between the amount of local money urban school districts in North Carolina spend on students and what their poorer, rural district spends continues to grow, according to a new study released Tuesday by the Public School Forum of North Carolina.
According to the Forum’s 2019 Local School Finance Study, the state’s 10 highest spending counties spent an average of $3,200 per student compared to $755 by the 10 lowest spending counties.
That’s a $2,445 difference per student and the largest gap since the Forum began tracking the figure in 1987.
The new study examined data from the 2016-17 school year.
It found that Orange County, which includes Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, spends the most, $5,025 per pupil. And Swain County spends the least at $425 per pupil.
The previous study, which looked at data from the 2015-16 school year, showed a smaller spending gap of $2,364 between the 10 highest spending urban districts and the 10 lowest spending rural districts.
The 10 urban districts spent an average of $3,103 per student that year compared to $739 for rural districts.
The Forum is a Raleigh-based nonpartisan organization that focuses on improving educational outcomes for North Carolina’s children.
Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Forum, said the data show the state needs a more equitable funding mechanism for low-wealth schools.
“If we’re going to take on this big task of overhauling and changing the way we fund schools, it is our belief that we should do more than simply find a more efficient way of distributing what we just showed you is inadequate funding across the state,” Poston said.
Taxable resources drive spending
The amount a county is able to spend on education is driven by its taxable resources.
The states 10 wealthiest counties have nearly $1.9 million in taxable real estate wealth per child, which is more than five times the $386,873 per child in the 10 poorest counties.
Wealthier counties with more taxable resources can generate significant revenue while keeping tax rates low.
Poorer counties struggle to keep up because fewer taxable resources mean higher taxes that generate fewer dollars than wealthier counterparts.
To illustrate, Patrick Miller, superintendent of Greene County Schools, a small district, low wealth district of fewer than 3,000 students that spends $755 in local dollars per pupil, compared the impact of a one-cent tax increase in Greene County to a penny hike in neighboring Carteret County.
Miller explained that if Greene County commissioners agree to one-cent tax increase, it would generate almost $110,000, which is barely enough money to pay for two teachers.
But a one-cent tax increase in wealthier Carteret County would raise roughly $1.6 million in revenue, Miller said.
“The discrepancies are real,” he said.
Even with $3.5 million in supplemental funds for low-wealth districts, Miller said there is a $9.1 million local per pupil spending gap between Orange County and Greene County.
“That $9.1 million is about 25 percent of my total budget, which is about $34 million to $35 million, so you can see the gap in opportunities my children have versus children in more affluent places,” Miller said. “I’m very sensitive to that and I’m sensitive to the way areas east of Interstate 95 are viewed.”
Miller was part of a panel discussion that took place after the Forum released its report.
The panel also included Kerry Crutchfield, former chief financial Officer, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools; Anthony Jackson, superintendent of Vance County Schools (VCS) and Seth Prevette, CFO of Wilkes County Schools.
Low wealth districts are at a great disadvantage when it comes to the recruitment and retention of teachers because they can’t compete with the higher supplements paid in wealthier districts. A supplement is local money districts pay teachers on top of their state salaries.
In Vance County, Jackson said he struggles to keep teachers because of stiff competition from nearby districts such as Wake County Public Schools (WCPS), which can pay much higher supplements.
“The joke with a lot of my superintendent colleagues is that we do a great job of preparing teachers for them,” Jackson said.
He said the districts best teachers only stay a few years before leaving for nearby districts that pay higher supplements. VCS pays a $2,500 supplement compared to about $8,600 for WCPS, Jackson said.
Poston said North Carolina has created a situation where wealthier counties are able to “poach” the best and brightest teachers from low-wealth counties.
“I don’t blame Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg [school districts],” Poston said. “They’re just trying to serve their students, but that’s the system we have.”