Johnston County Schools Facing $10 Million Budget Shortfall

“I’m Very Disappointed In Our Previous Superintendent,” School Board Member Says  

Johnston County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jim Causby dropped a financial bombshell on school board members Tuesday when he announced the school system is facing a potential $10 million budget shortfall this fiscal year.  Dr. Causby promised to do everything possible to prevent cuts from being made to teachers and in the classrooms.  However, he made no promises.

“The current budget situation has developed over several years but the majority of the problem has happened over the past two school years,” Dr. Causby told JoCoReport.  “Several factors are the main reasons and those include inadequate growth in local funding, explosive growth in the exceptional children’s program that has exceeded funding provided by the state and federal governments, and use of resources from the school system’s fund balance to cover the shortfalls from state and federal programs which have depleted almost all of our fund balance. These are the three ‘whats’ that are to blame.” Causby said it would be inaccurate to blame the circumstances on any one person.

(Left to right) Superintendent Dr. Jim Causby discusses a $10 million budget shortfall at the Oct. 8, 2019 school board meeting as Chairman Mike Wooten listens. Photo

“The current shortfall I mentioned is an approximate worst case amount and I am still working on what the exact amount is,” Causby said Thursday when speaking with JoCoReport.  “It is an accumulation of the past two years plus the current school year needs.  There has been no misappropriation of monies or overspending in areas not needed.”

The interim superintendent promised to do what he could to keep the cuts from directly impacting students. “I am working very hard to insure that teachers and classrooms see only minimal effects.  Protecting the safety of our students and enhancing student achievement will be the focus of any budget adjustments.”

$5 Million In Reductions This School Year 
Dr. Causby has taken immediately steps to began making cuts in all areas with the exception of teachers and classrooms.

“We are looking at everything that isn’t in the two areas mentioned above.  My staff and I have tentatively identified over $5 million in reductions for the current year.  Those are in the areas of supplies and materials, travel, contracts, facility operations, a freeze on hiring only “essential” positions, and movement of several central administrative positions to fill school level needs,” Causby said in an exclusive interview.

County Commissioners Will Be Asked For More Money
Dr. Causby said he met Tuesday with county leaders to alert them to the school system’s major financial problems.

“I have met with County Manager Rick Hester and his financial staff to share information to date.  They have been wonderful and positive to work with.  When I am to the point of knowing that my budget numbers are absolutely accurate and precise I will address the Board of Commissioners and ask that they help us with the budget.”

“I believe they support the Johnston County Schools and know that the school system is vital to the health and growth of our county.  They know that I will only ask for their help as a last resort and I have faith that they will respond positively to school system needs.”

Hester confirmed the meeting saying, “(Dr. Causby) shared preliminary numbers with me. I’m confident we will be meeting again over the next few weeks.”

The school superintendent says he doesn’t believe money was misused or inappropriately spent. Rather continued shortfalls in funding for programs like the Exceptional Children Program.  “The State of North Carolina funds exceptional children programs for a maximum of 12.75 percent of the school system’s K-12 student population.  In Johnston County Schools we have almost 17 percent of our K-12 population identified and placed in the exceptional children program.  All this extra cost, which this year will be around $12 million, has to come from local funds.”

Two years ago, Johnston County Schools has approximately $10 million in reserve funding. This week, Dr. Causby said the number is down to $330,000 and those funds are already earmarked for future projects.

School Board Reaction
Six of the seven school board members were present for Tuesday’s meeting with the exception of Traci Zukowski.  Reaction to the $10 million budget shortfall was swift and harsh from the elected school leaders.

“I would like to say that I’m very disappointed in our previous superintendent,” Board member Todd Sutton said.  “As a board member I can only act on the information that is presented to me. We’re not here on a daily basis, therefore we rely on the information that is presented to us in our board room. And I’m just very disappointed.”

“Mr. Sutton, well said,” responded Board member Terri Sessoms. “I echo everything you’ve just said. Dr. Causby, I want to thank you for being honest with us. We can only make good decisions based on the information we’re presented.  And while this is not a message we wanted to here, at least we know where we are and I want to thank you for that.”

“I think a lot of people in Johnston County from many different groups over the past several months and maybe several years have had a lot of questions about the direction we’re going and what we’re doing,” Board member Ronald Johnson said.  “Unfortunately when stuff like this is discovered you have to make a change, you have to make some tough decisions, and the Board of Education has done that.   And unfortunately we have found the discrepancies … but fortunately we’ve got the right one piloting the plane now.”

“Dr. Causby is a decision maker. He is going to come in and make some tough decisions and you may like them, you may dislike them,” Johnson continued. “I can tell you the board members have liked and disliked some of those decisions… There has been a lot of controversy – you call me a conspiracy theorist if you want – but I think some of that might have been by design.  I’m sure there’s some people out there that Dr. Causby talked about, disagreeing in an agreeable fashion. But I’m sure there is a small minutia of people who want that disagreement. They want that conflict. So to all those people that want that conflict and chaos in Johnston County Schools, to everyone whose about to take to the internet, your internet trolls, your keyboard warriors, the people who get real tough when they’re behind the computer screen and keyboard, line up and throw your stones now, but be sure you get back in line when we fix this problem. And keep the same enthusiasm you have right now when you come back a year later and we’ve got this ship on the right course.”

“We don’t know what we don’t know until someone slaps us in the face with it,” Board member Teresa Grant said.  “We appreciate you Dr. Causby. Your leadership, the transparency that you’re not only willing to share with this Board but also with the County Commissioners, with the public… I appreciate you looking at ways we can cut and do things right, but we need all those teachers we can get.”

“No it’s not good news but I know we’re going to get where we need to be,” Chairman Mike Wooten added.

On June 3rd, 2019, former superintendent Dr. Ross Renfrow asked Johnston County Commissioners for $1.5 million to meet obligations for the previous fiscal year ending June 30, 2019. The following week Commissioners approved the request.  At the time, Dr. Renfrow blamed the end of the year financial shortfall on the lack of state funds for exceptional and special needs children.

Secondly, Dr. Renfrow said Johnston County Schools had to return $3.5 million to the state due to 691 students who elected to enroll in charter schools versus Johnston County Public Schools. Renfrow said JCS officials didn’t anticipate the number of students being that high. He blamed it on the opening of a new charter school in Clayton last school year.

At the June 2019 commission meeting, JCS Finance Director Art Stanley said the school system had $2 million in reserve fund balance.  As of Oct. 8th, the reserve funds were down to only $330,000, will all of those funds already earmarked.   Two years ago, the school system had approximately $10 million in reserves.