During a work session and special-called meeting Wednesday night, the Cumberland County Board of Education, with Brian Houston, 1st District representative; Rob Safdie, 2nd District representative; and Rick Smith, 4th District representative, pictured above, voted to keep the 2007-’08 school budget as is, with only a $500 increase for school nurse training. The budget will now return to the budget committee of the Cumberland County Commission for discussion.

It's gotten personal.

At least that's according to Cumberland County Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle who told Board of Education members at the Aug. 8 work session that when the education of our county's children is affected, she takes it personal.

The BOE refused to make any cuts to the 2007-'08 county school budget in spite of the county's request for cuts to be made.

At the special-called meeting following the work session, the board voted to approve the budget as is, with an additional $500 for staff development in health services for nurse training.

"This budget upset me," said Robert Safdie, 2nd District representative. "These projected cuts, we have no business cutting reading, we have no business cutting supplies, we have no business cutting our books, we have no business cutting any of it."

"I say send it back to them. We're not budging," said Dan Schlafer, 9th District representative.

"[The budget committee] tells me they're not going to talk to me if we didn't come back with something different," said VanWinkle.

"Then I say it's time to go to the comptroller's office," said Schlafer.

"What kind of message are you sending to the teachers and the personnel of Cumberland County when as a board we're going to sit here and say, 'You're doing a good job, but we're not going to reward you. We're going to cut things out of your budget'?" said Gordon Davis, 5th District representative.

Safdie made mention that the community doesn't understand that the revenue generated from the half-cent sales tax was depleted with the construction of Brown and Stone elementaries, along with the renovations to Homestead Elementary, saying the money is locked in going toward that for the next 15 to 20 years.

"My daddy used to tell me, 'You know what, Dan, if what you did yesterday is still important to you today, you haven't done much today, have you?'" said Schlafer. "And that's where we are. We have to do something today. We've done some stuff in the past, but we've not done enough, and it's time to step up."

"I've got one other place where I'd be willing to cut, and I'll do that if the board approves the new budget consideration," said Safdie. "I believe I get approximately $2,400 a year on membership for Board of Education. I relinquish that now. I turn it over to the county. You cut that out of the budget for Board of Education and call Brock Hill and say I won't accept being paid for being on the Board of Education. I don't expect anybody else to do that. Ghandi said, 'You have to be what you want others to become.' And through that effort, let's tell the community that we're willing to put our effort into education."

Safdie later said he wanted to make sure that in relinquishing the money, the money did in fact go back into the school system rather than into the county's budget. Brian Houston, 1st District representative, also said he wouldn't mind giving up three years worth of salary for the school system, acknowledging that it doesn't make a big impact to the budget but sends a message to the community.

VanWinkle continued from the Aug. 2 BOE meeting in presenting data showing the county's decrease in support in recent years.

"I want to point out to you when we had the OPST funding, the county funded right at 39 percent of our school budget… When the Basic Education Plan was implemented, not fully, first implemented, as the state poured in more money to better the education program, our county did not keep going with the percentage that they had. It dropped considerably that year. In 1997-'98 when the BEP was fully funded, you can see what we did, we dropped to 29.6 percent in local funding… 2005-2006, we were at 29 percent. For 2006-2007, we dropped to 28 percent, which is well-below the state average of 43 percent," said VanWinkle.

The director noted that based on new figures coming in Cumberland County ranks 122nd out of 137 school systems in the amount spent for each child. With property tax rate for 2007 being set at $1.24 for 2007, the county comes in at 95th in the state for its property tax rate.

"We have not received an increase in property tax in several years, as a matter of fact since 2001. And I think it was in 2003 that we begged for a nickel. The county chose to increase the property tax by 20 cents in 2004. We didn't get a penny of that even though we literally begged because I was there and I helped beg, beg for a nickel. We didn't get anything, [budget committee] knowing we needed it," said VanWinkle.

VanWinkle showed data revealing the equalization board's approval this year for property tax going to the school system to drop to 38 cents from last year's amount of 51 cents. This took place in spite of revenue in 2006-'07 increasing from an actual amount of $4.5 million to $4.6 million estimated in the 2007-'08 budget.

For 2007-'08, the schools are shown to receive a 0.48-percent increase in property tax revenue distribution, a $22,238 increase from the prior year. The county's debt service fund grew $83,443 at a 2.41-percent increase. VanWinkle pointed out the school's greater tax revenue, showing the school's actual revenue for 2006-'07 at $4.6 million and the debt service at $3.45 million.

"Mr. Safdie and I attended a meeting where this very situation presented itself, and there was another county experiencing the same difficulties and a state representative emphatically stated, 'This is not what's supposed to happen,'" said Schlafer. "And he said, then we need to have an attorney contact the state comptroller's office because this is not the intent of the law. If we have to go that route, we'll have to go that route… The numbers don't lie."

The school system's revenues for 2007-'08 have risen to $41.3 million since the last budget estimate since other moneys have come in, such as pre-K funding, a $90,000 health services grant, and a few other grants, along with the sales tax and property tax rates being figured in. With expenditures at $47.2 million, having increased due to grants, that brings the deficit to $5.9 million.

Taking $2.2 million from fund balance for capital outlay projects, the school system is left needing $3.7 million.

Theoretical areas for cuts were proposed to the BOE by VanWinkle, who said she was not in favor of the cuts but only presented them in light of the county commission budget committee's request for cuts.

"This is all that I can come up with that we can cut, and I told this to the county commission. We have a lean budget," said VanWinkle.

The proposed cuts, only hypothetical, included a $947,588 cut to instruction and a $320,200 cut to other areas such as the salary raises for the maintenance and transportation director, travel costs, equipment, and four buses. There were other cuts proposed that would affect personnel such as the entirety of extra-curricular supplements, JROTC, and nursing positions. The proposed cuts came to a total of $2 million.

Though none of the cuts were made and the budget was passed, a vote has yet to take place regarding the resolution that would make the Cumberland County school system a special district acting as its own taxing authority. The resolution was moved from the agenda to the Sept. 10 monthly meeting because Safdie told fellow board members he needed more time to prepare to present the resolution.