HAMLET — Richmond County Schools could lose more than $1 million in state funding with the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program, according to a resolution approved by the Board of Education on Tuesday.
Superintendent Dr. Joe Ferrell introduced the resolution — urging legislators to prioritize public schools — to the board, saying that legislators want to “radically expand” the program by opening it to all students, regardless of family income or if they already attend.
Reading from the resolution, Ferrell said expanding the program would “result in steep cuts to our public schools, harming the educational opportunities (of) students, especially in rural and lower wealth counties.”
Ferrell went on to say that the school system could lose $1,341,362 (3%) of its state funding in the 2026-27 fiscal year, “with hundreds of millions lost in coming years.”
Gov. Roy Cooper has been a vocal opponent of the program, declaring a “state of emergency” for public education last month.
“It’s clear that the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education,” Cooper said in his May 22 special address. “I’m declaring this a state of emergency because you need to know what’s happening. If you care about public schools in North Carolina, it’s time to take immediate action and tell them to stop the damage that will set back our schools for a generation.”
Since then, the governor’s office has issued eight press releases specifically addressing the issue.
Proponents of the Opportunity Scholarship say the program gives parents more control over choosing their children’s education.
“Education is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and that is why families are clamoring for school choice options,” said Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover.
The Senate version of the bill, SB 406, titled “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future,” has languished in the Committee on Appropriations – Base Budget since late April, according to legislative records.
Sen. Dave Craven, R-Randolph, who represents Richmond County, voted in favor of the bill, as did Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Moore, who formerly served on the local school board before being elected to state office.
The House version, HB 823, passed its home chamber on May 17 and was sent to the Senate, where it passed the first reading the following day and was immediately sent to the Rules Committee.
The primary sponsor of the bill is Rep. Tricia Cotham, R-Mecklenburg, who made headlines earlier this year when she switched to the Republican Party.
Legislative records show the bill passed the House 65-45 on the second reading, mostly along party lines. Rep. Shelly Willingham, D-Edgecombe, was the only Democrat to support it.
While it has been a divisive issue, columnist John Hood says both sides should “temper their expectations a bit.”
“There won’t be a gigantic exodus of children from district-run public schools in the fall of 2024,” Hood said in a May 25 column, adding that the state’s private schools “don’t have the capacity to absorb such an enrollment boom.”
Richmond County has several church-affiliated private schools, including Temple Christian School in East Rockingham, Outreach for Jesus between Rockingham and Hamlet, and Second Baptist Christian Academy in Hamlet.
Some Richmond County parents have also opted to send their children to the O’Neal School in Southern Pines or Marlboro Academy in Bennettsville, South Carolina.
In addition to calling for stopping “the unlimited expansion” of the scholarship program, the resolution also requests that legislators increase teacher salaries by at least 18% over the next two years and make “significant” investments in early childhood education.
School Board Chairman Wiley Mabe said the General Assembly wants to “take away our low-wealth classification” and base funding on the poverty rate.
“This is a very detrimental budget for Richmond County Schools,” Mabe said. “We’re so poor we can’t hardly pay attention now. And if they toy with our tier status and don’t work with us … it’s gonna hurt, really bad.”
Mabe encouraged his fellow board members to contact Craven and Rep. Ben Moss, R-Richmond “and tell them that …they’re robbing our children.”
Earlier in the meeting, the board voted to accept a change in the recently adopted dress code policy, striking a potentially problematic provision that would have prohibited most graphics and wording, except for brand logos.
The board also approved a change, removing unexcused tardies and early releases from qualifications for potential legal action regarding the attendance policy.