Members of Craven County’s Board of Commissioners and Board of Education appeared to leave a nearly two-hour joint meeting Monday amiably and with a new commitment to communicate.
The meeting was originally set to finalize the county’s school appropriations, particularly teacher supplements, but information that recently surfaced about a possible 2014 Federal Impact Aid penalty took top billing.
A clerical error in paperwork submitted to the federal government could cause Craven County Schools to lose 10 percent, or $255,000, of its Impact Aid.
Commissioner Scott Dacey brought the issue to commissioners’ attention at an Aug. 4 meeting. On Monday, he was also the most vocal critic of commissioners not finding out about the problem until long after school officials were aware of it.
Even when school leaders came before commissioners with the school system’s 2014-15 budget request and said they had less federal money, they did not mention the quarter-million dollar Impact Aid penalty, Dacey said.
The likely penalty is because an application cover page was faxed in a landscape rather than a portrait display, thereby omitting a required signature. The application was submitted Jan. 30, 2013, and the error came to the schools’ attention on Feb. 1, 2013.
Craven County Board of Education Chairman Carr Ipock said the page, which appeared one way on the website and another as a PDF, was returned correctly two hours after notice was received. It was ultimately still labeled past deadline.
Federal Impact Aid comes to counties in four areas of North Carolina, Ipock said, based on the number of students from military and federal employee families who do not pay county taxes. Local school systems around Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base get Federal Impact Aid.
About one-fourth of Craven’s County school population — 26 percent — comes from military and federal employee families that affect the county’s Federal Impact Aid allotment.
While the school system’s budget presentation did note a decrease in federal funding, Ipock said, it was referring to 2011 federal “low wealth funding,” not the Impact Aid funding. There was no intent to deceive commissioners, he said.
Delay in receiving federal money is not uncommon, Ipock said. When a problem exists, particularly a minor clerical error in an account that just last year was audited and “got stellar reviews,” it usually gets worked out, he said.
Dacey questioned the 11th hour submission of the $2.55 million application, which was received by the U.S. Department of Education one day before it was due.
Assistant Superintendent for Finance Denise Altman said the process of calculating how many students affect Impact Aid requires forms to be sent home and be returned to schools by the system’s roughly 14,500. It is a several-month process including calls, emails and even contact with neighbors.
Ipock reiterated information presented by County Manager Jack Veit and Superintendent Lane Mills on statutory responsibilities: The Board of Education is an elected board responsible for many things and it does not and is not required to discuss specifically with commissioners.
Dacey said, “I want to identify for the public where the communication weakness is and look forward.”
He said the schools typically get a minimum of 12 cents of Craven County’s 47 cent per $100 valuation property tax rate and, “from our perspective, money is money, particularly any deficiency in educational support for the children we all care about deeply.”
A Washington, D.C., lobbyist by profession, Dacey said that when he asks for assistance from high-level bureaucrats or elected officials in changing a decision or rectifying a problem, “we have to be perfect with the facts. We’re asking you to be forthcoming …on the front end of the appropriations process.”
“I want us to do a better job communicating and taking advantage of the assets everyone has,” he said.
Tom Mark, chairman of the Craven County Board of Commissioners, said communication needed to be improved.
“Communications are a very important part of our job and our constituents are asking questions we can’t answer,” he said. “When we ask you questions at budget time, you don’t have answers because you are not prepared.”
By meeting more often, at least three times a year, that could be avoided, and both boards and their constituents would be better served, Mark said.
Ipock agreed: “The bottom line is that communication should be going on all the time.”
The boards will meet again in September to discuss teacher supplements and other budget matters and vocational education.
Sue Book is a reporter for the Sun Journal.