SMITHFIELD — The proposed budget for Johnston County calls for cuts in education spending, and advocates say it couldn’t come at a worse time.
County Manager Rick Hester’s draft budget, released last month, includes a $2 million cut to the public school district and a $150,000 cut to Johnston Community College. It’s still early in the budget process, and county commissioners will likely tweak those amounts.
“The schools have asked for more, and they always do and that’s typical,” said Jeff Carver, chairman of the Board of Commissioners. “I fully expect us to come to a fair outcome for both of us.”
Johnston schools superintendent Ed Croom and JCC President David Johnson have about a month to make their case.
After releasing the budget last month, Hester said the county needs to be conservative in its spending to boost its credit rating. That would also help the school system in the long run, allowing the county to borrow more money for school construction projects.
But Croom and Johnson said the draft proposals are lower than what they’d like to see.
Croom asked for $55 million from the county, but the draft budget calls for $50 million – a $2 million cut from the current year’s spending. He said state requirements on workers’ compensation and property insurance are driving up costs. The county needs to help cover those costs, he argued.
“There’s a big part of that increase that’s driven by the state that we didn’t expect,” Croom said.
The superintendent said he also expects to see funding for textbooks decline. The state increasingly wants school districts to use computers instead, which means schools will constantly need to spend money on upgrades.
“Trying to keep up with technology is a big problem,” Croom said.
JCC’s needs list
Under the proposal, JCC would get a slight cut – just over $4 million in funding, compared to $4.2 million last year.
Johnson said the college needs all the money it can get for renovations. The parking lot and sidewalks are in bad shape, he said. The Tart Building, which includes the auditorium and a library, has leaks whenever it rains and needs a roof replacement.
The college has been trying to raise more money privately, but Johnson said that’s probably not an option for these projects. Donors are eager to give money for more glamorous projects, like new buildings.
“Fundraising is most difficult on infrastructure projects,” Johnson said. “People are not quite as anxious to give you $100,000 to repave your parking lot.”
The college also wants to hire more employees. Johnson said the campus needs four maintenance and groundskeeping crew members. He also wants to hire police officers year-round – JCC’s current contract with Smithfield only covers the academic year.
“We don’t have, for about three months during the summer, any armed officers on campus,” he said.
The college, like the school district, is expecting rapid growth over the next few years. Johnson said it’s crucial to take care of these issues before the population booms.
But both Croom and Johnson say they understand the position the county is in. It is facing rising costs while trying to keep its fund balance at 15 percent. They believe they’ll be able to find middle ground.
“I’m sure we’ll come to some kind of agreement that we’re both happy with,” Croom said.