School system debates potential impact of proposed county budget 

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Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

When giving his annual budget message to commissioners, County Manager Derek Roland touted state legislators for their continued commitment to public education in North Carolina. Over the last few years, state leaders have budgeted for teacher raises each year, working toward bringing the state up to par with surrounding states, as well as funding crucial programs and positions on the local level such as driver’s education and teacher assistants.

Roland’s budget presentation allocated $6,995,431 for the Macon County School system’s operating budget and $500,000 for the district’s capital outlay budget. While the proposed operating budget allocation would be $342,899 less than the current year, with a 67 percent or $200,000 increase to capital outlay proposed, in total, the county’s allocation to Macon County Schools would experience a $142,899 reduction in funds in the coming year.

“While operating expenses have been reduced, this reduction comes in response to an increase in state funding levels for operational experiences, combined with the school system’s efforts in reducing the number of locally paid teachers through attrition and transfers to state and federal funds,” said Roland. “Both state funding levels and efforts by the school system have proven to be successful and suitable as illustrated in the substantial [school system’s] multi-year fund balance growth.”

According to Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin, while it’s difficult to predict the actual amount of the district’s fund balance by year’s end, an audit conducted earlier this year, has the school system slated to have a fund balance of $2 to 2.4 million by the year’s end. This will be the first time the district has had a fund balance since it was depleted a few years ago.

“I cannot give you an accurate figure on the fund balance that we will have in June,” said Dr. Baldwin. “I can tell you that our auditors project that it will be somewhere between $2 and $2.4 million.  A fund balance is important for several reasons. The best example of why it is important would be to go back to last year. Had we had a fund balance last year, we would not have reduced our positions through attrition in preparation for the projected cuts to driver’s education and teachers assistants. The school system would have begun the school year by funding those two items out of fund balance. Then when the state decided to fund those out of the budget that came out in October, we could have transferred them to the state budget. Had the state chosen not to fund TAs and DE, as projected, we could have come to the county this spring and requested funding, again.  If the county chose not to fund those items, TAs would have been eliminated and funding for DE would have had to have been reallocated from other areas.”

Dr. Baldwin said that over the last year, the district’s fund balance went from $0 to potentially $2.4 million because of instances such as uncertainty with teacher assistants and driver’s education funding. Increases in E-rate funding and medicaid reimbursement dollars that were not budgeted were also placed in the district’s fund balance. Additional federal dollars that were not originally anticipated also accounts for the increased fund balance.

When presenting to commissioners, Roland noted that with a growing fund balance and additional funding from both the state and federal levels, the county can lower its current expense allocations and focus on the district’s brick and mortar, which is what the county is responsible for under North Carolina general statute.

Dr. Baldwin noted that the original request made by the school system is less than last year, which reflects additional dollars from the state. “Our local current/operating expense request to the county was $7,338,330 for fiscal year 2016-17,” said Dr. Baldwin. “This request is less than our request for 2015-16.  Last year we requested $7,865,673. The most significant difference in the request from last year is that we do not have to cover the lost state allocation for teacher assistants and drivers education. The state will provide that funding for at least one more year, unless they make some changes in the short session.”

While the school system requested $7.8 million last year, the county allocated $7.3 million, which is what the district requested this year. There are currently 21 position vacancies within Macon County Schools, 14 of which are currently being advertised and Dr. Baldwin said that if the county’s budget stands as is, only seven positions will be filled.

“We are currently taking applications for 14 positions, that will be reduced by seven,” said Dr. Baldwin. Current vacant positions includes six teaching positions, an art teacher for the district, two English as a Second Language teachers, a media coordinator, an assistant principal, and other positions in the district. According to Dr. Baldwin’s proposed budget to the county, out of the new positions, 8.5 would be locally paid positions that would be recurring costs in the local expense budget.

When asked if the district would rather see the capital outlay budget remain flat, and see the district’s current expense be kept at current levels, Dr. Baldwin said the capital outlay projects could wait. “Our request is that our current expense allocation remain at $7,338,330,” said Dr. Baldwin. “Our principals have identified several areas that need to be addressed in the capital outlay allocation.  We know that some of these areas will not be addressed in the 2016-17 budget.”

In addition to the new positions in the school system’s budget, the local current expense also includes $13,500 for athletic supplements to coaches, something Roland proposes be taken out of the district’s fund balance rather than falling into the county’s portion of the budget.

Macon County officials and members of the board of education are scheduled to meet in a budget work session on May 31 beginning at 4 p.m. At that time, the two boards will further discuss the proposed budget. Dr. Baldwin believes a compromise is possible. “I understand that this is a proposed budget,” said Baldwin. “I believe that County Manager Roland has presented a balanced budget to the commissioners and that he has limited options when balancing revenues and expenses.  While we are not requesting an increase in funding, the school system is definitely not in a position to eliminate additional positions without significantly impacting the classroom.  I am confident that the county commissioners will carefully consider all aspects of the budget and make a decision that will be positive for our county.”

While the school system is slated for a decrease in revenue in the current proposed budget, it isn’t the only portion of the county’s budget to see a decrease in revenues. Roland was directed by the commission to develop a balanced budget that kept the current tax rate. Roland was also given priorities in the budget such as a pay plan implementation, revitalizing the county’s health insurance fund, maintaining county services and improving the county’s facilities such as Wesley’s Playground. Without increasing taxes for Macon County, Roland presented a budget to Macon County Commissioners that funded $1.7 million in capital improvements. Those improvements were made possible through an increase in revenue sources experienced by Roland’s conservative budget approach from the prior year and by 22 percent of all county departments seeing a decrease in expenditures in their budgets.

In addition to the school system, county departments to see a decrease in expenditures include Information Technology, a $225,736 decrease; Emergency Management, a $71,860 decrease; social services, $116,580 decrease; health department, $81,191 decrease; and five other departments with a combined $93,214 in decreases. In total, 22 percent of county departments were decreased by $838,266.

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