When students return to the classrooms across Onslow County later this month they’ll greet their teachers and begin new lessons without having to think about the cost of the laptop they work on or the amount of money it took to fill their classroom with supplies.

That’s the task of school board members and county commissioners as they finalize a budget each year that funds school operations for Onslow County Public Schools.

At the heart of the budget deliberations are two important figures: the number of students enrolled in the school system and how much it spends for each child’s education.

According to the latest numbers available from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, total per pupil spending for Onslow County Schools was $8,135 for the 2014-2015 school year. The average per pupil spending for the state was $8,784.

While per pupil spending hovers near the state average, the figure has increased steadily.

Per pupil expenditures totaled $7,726 in 2010-2011; $7,511 in 2011-2012; $8,014 in 2012-2013; and $8,083 in 2013-2014.

During that same time, the school system has grown from 23,300 students to 25,300 students over the past five years.

Each is a contributing factor in a school funding formula that Board of Education Chairwoman Pam Thomas believes benefits the county as well as the school system.

Funding formula

Under the Joint Educational Funding Policy adopted by the Board of Education and Board of Commissioners in 2014, the county appropriation for Onslow County Schools’ current expense budget is calculated based on the average daily membership and the state average of local counties’ per pupil expenditure.

Thomas said they have seen per pupil spending increase, but what makes the formula a model for other school districts in the state is the consistency it provides.

Instead of guessing from year-to-year what the local funding will be or waiting until the end of the budget what appropriation will be approved, Thomas said they can now plan for local funding based on the formula in place.

“It certainly allows us to know we have a continuing budget in place. We have a planning document and we know what to expect,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the school board and commissioners have had a good relationship, and the funding policy benefits both sides.

The school system knows what funding to expect from the county. Likewise, the school system is responsible for providing data on school performance, such as graduation rates, dropout rates, school performance grades and other information.

“It keeps them aware of what the schools are doing. It’s not only a benefit to us, but to the county as well,” Thomas said.

Onslow County Manager Jeff Hudson said year-to-year certainty in the county budgeting process is in big part due to the school funding. In the 2016-2017 fiscal year budget that took effect July 1, financial support for the county’s K-12 public schools accounted for 25.15 of the county’s general fund budget.

When looking at the impact on the county’s property tax revenues, 23.31 cents of the current 67.5-cent tax rate funding the school system under the approved funding formula.

Hudson said the success of the funding formula has been recognized by other counties and school systems in the state.

“The funding formula allows both the county and the school system to have certainty in the budget process. We use objective numbers such as the number of children in school and the statewide average per pupil appropriation to determine the correct funding level for Onslow County, “ Hudson said. “Without Onslow County’s investment, I believe the school system would have faced extreme cost saving measures such as widespread layoffs of personnel. I am certain the school system could not have engaged in as many new initiatives as they have without the funding formula and support of the Onslow County Board of Commissioners.”

How Onslow compares

Onslow County Schools received a $46.7 million county appropriation for operations this fiscal year, an increase of $1.7 million, but the school system continues to rank among the lowest for per pupil expenditures despite the local commitment.

As the 12th largest school district in the state, Onslow County ranked 108th lowest out of 115 school districts for per pupil expenditures in 2015.

That’s not where the school district wants to be in the rankings but it can be difficult to compare school districts due to the many factors involved in school funding, Thomas said.

Jones County, the area’s smallest school system with about 1,100 students, ranked among the top school districts with $12,528 in total per pupil expenditures but receives low-wealth funding that other school systems do not. The school district received nearly $1,736 in total federal funding per student, more than double the amount of federal per pupil funds for Onslow County in 2015.

Carteret County received the lowest in federal funding but highest local per pupil funds at $2,838 for 2015, according to the DPI data.

Duplin County Schools had total per pupil expenditures of $8,780.

Thomas said that the budget for Onslow County Schools includes other factors that help boost its funding, including a 10 percent local supplement for certified employees, which helps to recruit and retain teachers.

She said the school system also makes good use of grants as an outside source of funding for programs and items that might otherwise be possible.

“We make the most of our money,” Thomas said. “We are very frugal with how we spend our money and we spend it how we say we are going to spend it.”