Harnett County Schools really does do more with less.
Just look at the numbers.
Superintendent Aaron Fleming recently shared a pair of tables based on statistics from the Department of Public …
Superintendent Aaron Fleming recently shared a pair of tables based on statistics from the Department of Public Instruction with the HCS Board of Education detailing a few interesting statistics related to the school system’s per pupil expenditures and average daily membership.
“How do we go about trying to get that better than what it is now?” Chairman Eddie Jaggers inquired of the tables. “We’re pitiful.”
Jaggers’ reaction stemmed from the district ranking near the bottom in per pupil expenditures (109 out of 115) statewide despite being North Carolina’s 18th largest school system. Only Johnston County ($9,042) placed lower than HCS ($9,104) in the immediate area in terms of total per pupil expenditures.
Harnett County Schools’ $1,399 local per pupil expenditures ranked slightly ahead of Sampson County ($1,175), but still was just 101st in the state.
HCS reported an average daily membership of 19,940 students during the 2019-20 school year. A difficult challenge facing HCS and the county as a whole is keeping up with continued growth coming into the area with a total per pupil expenditure that is more than $800 below the state average of $9,950. A total expenditure on par with the state average would inject nearly $17 million more into the school system.
“This is not a smack on the county commissioners because that’s not what this is,” board member Jason Lemons said. “There are three portions that make up the amount of money a county [school system] gets: state, federal and county money. The state and federal are pretty close to the same per kid. The difference is what your county offers. Other counties give more for their school system. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about what’s going on. A lot of it depends on what your tax rate is and also depends on how many taxes your county has. There are a boat load of things that go on there.”
As the population grows and the need for services follows, Harnett County will have to find the financial ability to pay for upgrades and keep up with the expansion. Oftentimes, generating revenue comes in the form of taxes or bonds or various fees, the kinds of things elected officials tend to avoid if possible.
“The county doesn’t have a lot of sales tax and property tax revenue,” Fleming said. “A lot of it has to do with being able to generate more tax revenue without having to raise taxes, which is an issue commissioners have to deal with. The more nonresidential growth we have in the county the more we’re able to generate higher per-pupil spending.
“We talk about stretching every penny and that’s kind of the way it is. We don’t contract a lot of things out, and we try to do it in-house because our capital money is so limited.”
Lemons said some counties supplement funding through a school tax or impact fees that go into new housing. If the county were to increase property tax, Lemons said a few pennies wouldn’t be enough to meet the school system’s needs.
The district oversees 29 schools.
“That’s a lot of infrastructure,” Lemons said. “We’re just a very large county, geographically speaking. We’re in the bottom 20 for spending. We’ve been having to do more with less for many, many years now. We have school buildings kids are in now that are 60 years old and there is a tremendous amount of upkeep there.”
HCS also fell well below the state average for per pupil capital outlay, which Fleming described as the amount allotted by county commissioners for capital expenses for the school system divided by the number of students.
“We would love for it to be higher,” Lemons said. “We have to weigh out all of the issues going on in the county and all the growth. Wake County’s tax rate actually is lower than ours, but they have more houses. They’ve got more cars. Land is a premium in Wake County.
“Right now, we’re concentrating on infrastructure because we have to. Are we going to spend money driving kids around in buses or do what we need to do and put schools where the growth is? It’s a Catch-22 of where do you want to spend your money. The commissioners have one pie and they have to cut it up for everybody.”
The Harnett County Schools Board of Education is scheduled to meet again on April 19.
Eliot Duke can be reached at email@example.com or at 910-230-2038.