Carolyn L. Higgins – Contributing Writer
A popular song by the late Whitney Houston began with the lyrics: “I believe that children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way . . .” That seemed the overarching point being made at a meeting of the Macon County Association of Educators held at the Lazy Hiker’s conference room last week. It boiled down to how to make the compelling connection between well-funded education and a vibrant economy to county commissioners who are faced with balancing a budget to support county and school demand, while considering the greatest asset – the children in the classroom.
John deVille tasked the audience of about 30, including Macon County School Board Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin, Mayor Bob Scott, parents, teachers, administrators, and county personnel, “I hope you have some specific tools, strategies and tactics in mind all with the focus of improving funding for Macon County Public Education.”
STEM coordinator Jennifer Love and science teacher Kate McMahan facilitated the meeting along with deVille. The panel emphasized the school system’s need for $685,000 to add to the current operating expense budget just to maintain current levels and highlighted the down side.
“We are going to be in a position this coming year 2018-2019 of cutting positions, transforming athletics into a pay-to-play enterprise or other means such as involuntary or voluntary transfers from one school to another,” said deVille. An additional $400,000 was also requested for continuous retraining of school personnel, with a focus toward improved school security in Macon County in light of recent school shootings, continued threats and other related incidents locally and nationwide.
“In the wake of Parkland and the concerns over school security, Dr. Baldwin’s phone’s been ringing off the hook, school board members’ phones ringing off the hook,” said deVille. Specific personnel requested include additional school counselors at the high school, a counselor at Union, a counselor at South Macon and a couple of extra assistant principals.
Baldwin thanked everyone for attending and expressed encouragement before dissecting the proposed budget and historical analysis of Macon and three other school systems. The school board submitted a budget in early February that centered on maintaining current service levels. The board had dipped into the fund balance in the last three years to cover current expense.
“This past year, we budgeted about $475,000 of that fund balance and wound up using about $440,000,” said Baldwin. “Next year’s salary and benefit increases at $150,000 and another $50,000 for utility increases that Duke has proposed. That bumps that number up another $200,000 so we are somewhere in the neighbor of $685,000 to meet our current level of service for the school year ’18-’19.”
He shared a chart comparing movement since 2013-2014, among Macon, Jackson, Transylvania and Watauga county schools, showing $11.1 million total budget for Macon with only Jackson County having less at $10.5 million and Watauga having the most at $20.6 million. Macon’s Average Daily Membership (ADM) is higher at 4,398 than Jackson and Transylvania, and Watauga the highest at 4,475. Other figures show Macon experienced a -8.2 percent decrease in its total budget, while Transylvania and Watauga increased by 3.9 and 5.9 percent, respectively. Jackson had a slight decrease at -0.3 percent. Baldwin explained these counties were chosen because a couple of years ago, he overheard Macon County Manager Derek Roland identify these as our sister counties with similar size and demographics.
The next row on his comparison chart specified operational budget.
“Now, this second row here is the one I’m most concerned about . . . because the operational budget is people and programs,” said Baldwin. Since 2013-2014, Macon schools’ operating budget has declined by 2.8 percent, Jackson’s has increased by 1.7 percent, Transylvania’s has increased by 17.1 percent, and Watauga has increased by 7.2 percent. He believes the trend will continue for growth in the sister counties; but is not so encouraged about Macon, but believes there is room for possibility. The chart also depicted total budgets for Watauga at $20.6 million – that’s approximately $9 million more than Macon’s total budget although Watauga has fewer students. Last year Macon was the largest school system on the chart by ADM.
“I want to point out that in Watauga’s [county] budget 50% goes towards education. In Macon [county] around 19% of the budget goes to education,” said Baldwin.
Baldwin said that when dealing with existing fund balances, allocations are designated for Medicaid, Pre-K, and other things the school system has no control over. He is concerned that counties have to backfill where the state doesn’t. He says the lines have become blurred.
“As quickly as the state constitution was written, local counties were supplementing the current expense budget of school teachers,” said Baldwin. “It depends on the priorities of the county. In the 1950s, across the state, 17% of school system’s current expense budget came from the local. So, it’s been going on for as long as we’ve had states.”
Baldwin shared a quote of a retired board administrator who had gone through the recession of reduction. “The first two of three years of it, we said we were going to do ‘more with less.’ We’ve been doing more with less. And those test scores reflect that. When the administrator left he said, ‘I can no longer say that, I have to be honest, ‘we’re doing less with less.’”
When Baldwin sees what other counties are doing that we are not, it “scares” him as he watches the gap grow wider each year.
Next he pointed to the low millage rate and a comparison of the county’s budget to the school system’s budget going back to 2008-2009 at the tip of the recession. The county’s budget was $46 million and it dips down to $45 million in 2014-2015. Around 2013-2014 the economy was beginning to stabilize a little bit with the recession easing, so Baldwin shows the county budget was $47 million and the school’s budget was $12.6 million. In another comparison, 2008-2009 reflects $13.6 million for the school system and $46 million for the county.
Further, Baldwin showed the county’s budget in 2017-2018 has grown to $49 million – a 4 percent increase over 2014-2015. During that period, the school system’s budget has reduced to $11.6 million or a decline of 2.4 percent. Over that same period of time, local employee numbers of the school system dipped by 30 – that includes personnel in various sectors. The detailed information for county budgets comes from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners website and is available back to early 2000. School test score information and budgets come from the Department of Public Instruction. The charts shared by Baldwin are available by request at the Macon County School Administration offices.
Baldwin wrapped up with a final chart comparison of the county’s budget and the school system’s budget.
“Again, the county’s budget has increased by 7.8 percent over that time frame [2008-2017]; the school system’s budget has decreased by 13 percent,” said Baldwin. “Now what I think you can see in this is the county found $13 million to put towards education, now they only have $11.1 million towards education. That’s a difference of about $1.7 million still in the budget. Factor in that their budget has increased by $2.7 million, so that is about $4.5 million more available over this period of time. Education was not a priority over that period of time.”
After a question about the ninth and the 63rd designations on the charts, Baldwin shared that Macon County has the ninth most county employees per the website mentioned. On the school system side, Macon school system is 63rd in number of local employees and 71st in terms of ADM. Baldwin said that is a little better than size indicates, but not much.
A question was asked about the number before the loss of 30 employees, and the answer was 139 and down to 109 at this time. The $685,000 needed to balance the budget is equivalent to 14 teacher positions at roughly $55,000 – a beginning teacher’s salary. While not necessarily meaning eliminating that number of positions, it could be a combination of 14 positions worth of expenses, including maintenance, custodians, teachers, teachers assistants, technology, digital textbooks, impact on field trips – charging mileage, part-time rather than full-time positions, impact on ESL positions and on counselors, not filling vacancies and other scenarios. Baldwin also shared about the anticipated Duke Energy rate increase of $50,000 that will have a huge impact. Other factors include receiving a state reduction of $500,000 for one fewer teacher based on ADM [199.5 versus 200.5], and not considering upcoming pay raises of $1,000 each.
Baldwin feels the critical impact is hard to explain to county commissioners, and many people, especially when the county commissioners are trying to balance the budget.
“If they get an opportunity and say the state’s giving them $500,000, it makes it a whole lot easier to justify less money,” said Baldwin.
“We need $685,000 local, what I have to do is look at where are we using those local dollars,” said Baldwin. “I can only tell you what I have.” Currently local dollars are used for one literacy facilitator, one health educator, two ESL positions, social workers and others. Four assistant principals and lead teachers are out of local funding. “I can tell you it is a very important day with the election going on and that will have an impact to our budget moving forward. It will have an impact on school funding in the next four years.”
Distrust between the school board and the county is a concern for Baldwin.
“I feel like it has improved. I’ve had conversations with several commissioners. I believe over the last four years they had their priorities in other places. Now having said that, let’s assume there is some distrust between the county and the board of education. I would like to believe that is not, but they do trust you. They will listen to you. They will respect your opinions. I do believe that.”
“It’s been a really rough year this year,” said teacher Kim Gurdak. “We’ve had lots of dealings with lots of issues – way more than ever before. And bringing those things into the classroom and having to remove all the things you say we are going to have to remove just gives me as a teacher an exploding balloon. It’s about the here and now, it’s about the kids we have in the classroom. I have to also point out that this has an impact on the students of Macon County. Now what direction do we want this money to go?”
Jennifer Love encouraged attendees to speak to everyone in the community, whether at the grocery store or stopping by a business. “I think if we go the route and talk to our business leaders and say ‘do you guys make decisions?’”
Kate McMahan was moved emotionally as an educator and a parent and wants community, business leaders and commissioners to consider the impact and give answers as to why there are several fewer science electives than last year.
“Do you want employees that are prepared?” said McMahan. “If so talk to your county commissioners about putting money in education. Second, talk to religious leaders about the safety and well being of our students, particularly in light of recent events.”
“Parents are very powerful,” said Love. “The goal should be for us to network with the community.” As a liaison between the business community and the schools, she agrees with the importance of the basic needs brought out by teachers in the audience, but she wants to prove businesses wrong who think they should have considered going over the mountain to Jackson county where they are stepping up with technology and curriculum such as the aviation program. She also stressed retention of the best and the brightest. “It is powerful when a company like Tektone goes to the commissioners and says, ‘I want a harvest out of this in 10 years, I predict I’m going to need a workforce in the technical realm and supporting some of these other initiatives’ [would be helpful].”
She believes that the education system can grow and that STEM also means engaging minds whether in the arts, building skills such as carpentry, plumbing or science and technology.
“I want the commissioners to understand that education is very, very closely linked to our economy,” said Love. “But after going to some of the commissioner meetings, there’s a lot of stuff happening here, but they don’t know . . . for example, telling them there is an aviation program across the mountain and we could be doing that here. Not . . . making big speeches not bombarding them, but making them aware of some of the opportunities in other counties that we could have here” She also wants them to have the great, positive vision of what is working such as good graduation rate and test scores.
Former and present educators such as Lee Berger and Rena Sutton raised a chorus of banter against those who feel dollars thrown at education are wasted, citing improvements in their students, countless hours spent to make their lives better, lack of necessary supplies, teacher and student devotion and often having schools being their last refuge of hope and growth in this world.
Mayor Scott acknowledged concern for education and the challenges both the county and the school system face. He pointed out that just as the school system faces scrutiny by the State and can face reversion of funding, the town has the challenge of receiving only 36 cents on the dollars it collects locally, whether from the Tourist Development Association or the Chamber, leaving a burden on the Town of Franklin. “We’re facing increasing tax cuts and the legislation expects us to take up the shortfall,” said Scott. Another problem was the rescission of the business license. “You’ve got a one-chair barbershop, now you pay $10. You take $50 million out of here in a box store, now you only pay $10.” He advocated for a small tax increase as an offset. One audience member said it’s not a problem when we go other places for leisure, shopping or vacation and pay more taxes.
“I feel the economy link is going to have to be a part of this conversation and that we cannot be in education isolation, we must be linked to the economy,” said Love.
The audience was encouraged to attend Tuesday’s county commissioner’s meeting as well as the next meeting of the Macon County Association of Educators May 17 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Macon County Public Library.
On Tuesday, County Manager Derek Roland presented to theMacon County Board of Commissioners the preliminary 2018-2019 budget at $22.4 million. No increase was anticipated for ad valorem taxes and Roland showed a $254,000 fund balance increase for the county. The preliminary budget included the proposed education funding, with an increase to the school’s operating funds of $200,000 in the coming fiscal year.
Several concerned educators, staff and parents attended the meeting.
Roland addressed Macon County School Board superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin to set a meeting with the school board’s liaison committee to discuss school system funding. The meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 23, at 2 p.m. A follow-up meeting with the entire school board will be held on Tuesday, June 5, at 5 p.m. Both meetings will take place at the commissioners’ boardroom at the Macon County Courthouse. A public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, June 19, at 6 p.m. “The county will continue to place its highest priority on human services at 24 percent and education at 18 percent,” said Roland.