Board cites uncertainty with final state budget

Marine Science and Technologies Early College High School student Susanna DeMartinis completes a math assignment in January. The county commissioners voted 5-2 against funding the school next year at a meeting Monday. (Cheryl Burke photo)

CARTERET COUNTY — The county’s Marine Science and Technologies Early College High School sustained another financial blow Monday evening when county commissioners voted 5-2, with commissioners Robin Comer and Jimmy Farrington dissenting, to reassign MaST funding to other county school expenditures.

The vote came during county commissioners’ regular session at the administration building on Court House Square.

Financing issues

The board’s decision comes amidst concerns the state might not pass a budget that includes funding for early college high schools. MaST, which operates on the campus of Carteret Community College, is one of hundreds of such schools throughout the state waiting for the governor and state legislators to make their decision.

“Right now the state is still up in the air,” Superintendent Mat Bottoms said, explaining that state officials are considering three different budgets. “The Senate budget does have three years of (early college high school funding) in it, the governor’s budget has five years and the house budget does not have (any). So we’re still waiting for the funding from the state.”

MaST, which opened last fall, took on 50 freshmen last year with the intent to accept 50 more this year. Students enrolled in the early college high school can earn up to two years in college credit before high school graduation. The early college is able to do this with funding help from the county and the state.

State funding, if granted, is expected to total $180,000 each year for three years.

“If we get (that) funding, we’ll be in great shape,” Mr. Bottoms said.

Buyer’s remorse

The county’s allocation is roughly that amount. Last year, county commissioners approved $185,000 in funding for the program.

Mr. Bottoms addressed county commissioners at their Monday evening meeting. Speaking candidly, the superintendent of public schools said keeping the doors of the early college open would be difficult without state funding. With state early college high school funding still in question, county commissioners asked Mr. Bottoms if MaST students and their parents were aware of the early college’s financial situation.

“They are very aware (they are in limbo),” Mr. Bottoms said. “The parents were at the (last) school board meeting. They are very aware of the funding issues with the school.”

County Chairperson Mark Mansfield said there is a chance the state could take months before making a decision, one way or another.

“My guess is, we are not going to know anything about the funding until sometime in October, maybe the first of November,” Mr. Mansfield said.

He and other commissioners said they don’t feel comfortable committing funds to a program they aren’t sure will have enough funds to operate an entire school year.

“How do we start a program … if we don’t know where the money is coming from?” Mr. Mansfield asked.  

While state funding is an important part of the early college’s operations, Mr. Bottoms said the early college has a safety net in the form of CCC.

“The (community college) is prepared to supplement that gap, whatever that gap is,” Mr. Bottoms said.

CCC President Dr. John Hauser, who attended Monday’s meeting, confirmed this to commissioners.

CCC’s funding role was two-fold. If a state budget wasn’t passed by the beginning of the 2019 academic year, the college planned to make up the difference until the state passed a budget. In case the state passed a budget that did not include MaST funding, the community college is prepared to make up the difference for the school year.

Dr. Hauser explained to commissioners that they would have done so via a portion of funds from on-campus sales.

“We have institutional money from the bookstore,” Dr. Hauser said. “We also have faculty that can teach there, so we can adjust the faculty schedule because we have enough faculty teaching there.”

Prior to voting, Commissioner Comer emphasized Dr. Hauser’s promise to assist with MaST funding, but other commissioners weren’t convinced.

“Are we going to go out and do something, again, based on a promise? We can’t do that,” Commissioner Ed Wheatly said, later adding, “I don’t give a damn, I’m telling you that’s a maybe,” when reminded of Dr. Hauser’s offer to provide supplemental funding.

Ultimately, county commissioners decided their money would be better spent in other areas.

“I think we made a mistake starting something when we didn’t have adequate resources,” Mr. Mansfield said later, adding the board has to do what’s best for students throughout the county. “I have a harder time continuing to fund the MaST program when we’re uncertain of the funding and not put my money on eight teacher’s (positions).”

The positions are part of cuts to other state and federal funds following a drop in enrollment after Hurricane Florence. County commissioners decided to recommit the MaST allocation to pay for the teaching positions.

“Due to state and federal cuts, we will lose 7.5 teaching positions for the coming year,” Carteret County Public School System Communications Director Tabbie Nance explained in an email to the News-Times.

Possible way forward

Despite their vote, county commissioners said they hope the county’s school board would be able to find a way for MaST to continue.

“We all want to fund education in this county,” Mr. Mansfield said.

When asked what would happen to early college students in a worst-case scenario, Mr. Bottoms said students would be able to go to the high schools they were bound for prior to MaST.

While county commissioners’ decision puts a strain on the early college high school, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate local funding. The language of the county board’s decision leaves the door open for the board of education to fund the early college.

“Chairman Mansfield made a motion to fully fund the County Manager’s recommended budget for Carteret Community College and the County Manager’s recommended budget for the Carteret County School System’s operating and capital budget; with a preference that the money allocated to the School System for MaST be used in an attempt to save teacher positions,” reads the motion, as written by County Clerk Rachel Hammer.

Despite the county’s explicit preference for how the funds should be spent, Mr. Mansfield admits, ultimately, that decision lies with the members of the school board.

“If we’re going to (fully fund county schools), we can save almost five teacher’s positions if we relocate the money from the MaST program to those teachers’ spots,” Mr. Mansfield said. “That’s not our job up here, that’s the board of education’s job (to parse out the money.)”

Mr. Bottoms and other officials have yet to deicide if Monday’s vote means the end of MaST.

The school board plans to hold a special meeting to discuss funding options for MaST at 1 p.m. Thursday at the central office at 107 Safrit Drive in Beaufort.

Reaction to decision

Mr. Bottoms expressed regret at the commissioners’ decision.

“I was disappointed that several of the County Commissioners did not support an innovative program that is accomplishing its intended goals,” Mr. Bottoms wrote in an email to the News-Times Tuesday. “Their rationale was the lack of approved state funding; however, state funding has not been approved for any programs at this point in the budget cycle.”

MaST parent advisory council chairman Andrea Beasley was also disappointed in the board’s decision and hinted at a politically tinged vote.

“It seems they have decided to make MaST the sacrificial lamb,” Ms. Beasley said. “The complaints from Commissioner Robinson that the school should never had been opened without funding locked in place is ridiculous for all of us who understand how the state budget process works. They vote annually on that budget — there is no ‘locked in’ beyond one year. But you would think our County Commissioners would know this type of information.

“I’m disappointed that our elected officials reacted this way about a school, that is made up of students who will be greatly impacted by their decisions. But I guess it’s easy for them to use 13- and 14-year-olds as a means to an end. What end that will be is unclear, but I guarantee our county will be worse for it.”

Ms. Beasley is the daughter of News-Times Publisher Lockwood Phillips.

Prior to county commissioners’ decision, Mr. Bottoms encouraged them to use their capacity as county commissioners to advocate for MaST. Mr. Bottoms fears that might be difficult following their decision.

“Our hope was that our Commissioners would help our Board of Education members advocate for the continuation of MaST by contacting our state representative in a positive way,” he said.

Regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s meeting, Mr. Bottoms doesn’t want MaST students and parents to worry.

“I want the parents and students of MaST to know that their principal and I have and will continue to do all we can to keep MaST open and continuing to provide them with unique and innovative education opportunities. We are proud of their accomplishments this year and share in their disappointment that the school’s future is in question.”

Contact Dean-Paul Stephens at 252-726-7081, ext. 232; email Dean@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @DeanPEStephens.

(2) comments

DeadBolt

I just wanted to make an observation about the teen behind the young lady in the picture. I see he is wearing glasses, yet his nose is almost touching the paper on the desk? His parents may want to give him a visit to an ophthalmologist to re diagnose him ? ie: no matter how smart you are, life is tough if your blind because of all the book work. Just an observation.

sonsofPepe

Don't blame the commissioners for this decision. Funding was an issue from the start and I still wonder what's the problem that MaST is supposed to solve. IIRC there are already programs in place to earn college credits while still in HS. Just seems like another way to blow some tax dollars as is the tradition of the school system.

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