Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer
Nearly $10 million of the county’s $48 million budget goes for public education each year. The county allocates $7 million for current expenses and operational expenses for the school district; $600,000 for capital outlay projects and technology upgrades; another $479,000 for teacher supplements, along with more funds for annual debt service contributions to Macon County Schools for past renovation projects like the new wing at Highlands School. This year, the county has also taken on a more than $2 million expansion project at South Macon Elementary and is in the process of discussing considerable investments in both Franklin High School and Macon Middle School that will total a couple of million dollars each. Despite the county’s annual contribution to Macon County Schools, Macon County School Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin told members of the board of education Monday night that it is not enough, and the school system needs around $1 million more a year in the current expense budget in order to balance the books.
The Board of Education unanimously voted to submit a current expense budget to the Macon County Board of Commissioners in the amount of $8,244,749.24, which is about a million dollars more than what the county allocated to the school system this year.
The Board of Education was presented with two proposed budgets Monday night. Draft one requested $7,823,410 from county commissioners, and would allow the district to balance the budget without using any fund balance, but wouldn’t address staffing needs in the district such as additional school counselors. Draft two balances the budget, but also includes an additional $421,339 for new positions throughout the district.
The board also agreed to implement a hiring freeze within the district as of Monday until the board is certain where funding will be next year. If the board of commissioners do not accept the submitted budget proposal and leaves the district’s annual allocation flat at $7.1 million, Dr. Baldwin said the board only has two options. In order to balance the budget, the district could eliminate the equivalent of 14 teaching positions or move the district to a “pay to play” athletic system which would require students to pay a fee in order to participate in athletics and eliminate the $479,000 in teacher supplements provided annually. Dr. Baldwin said that taking away teaching supplements would be a last resort measure and not something he advocates for, but if it came to it, not only would teacher supplements be considered, but so would administration and coaching supplements. For athletic supplements alone, the school system has budgeted $230,000 for the coming school year. Also paid out of local current expense are the board members’ salary, $17,100 a year, and the board’s legal expenses, which is $60,000 a year.
Dr. Baldwin said that either of those two options would generate enough money to make up for the $685,000 shortfall in the budget created by not utilizing the school’s fund balance as they have done in the past and rather leaving it at its current levels.
While the county’s allocation to the school system is right around $7 million a year, the school system’s budget is comprised of funding from three separate sources: county commissioners, the state of North Carolina, and the federal government.
On the local payroll proposed for next year, Macon County Schools is looking at needing $1.2 million in recurring funds to cover the cost of benefits and salaries for more than 23 teachers. Also on the local payroll is nearly half of the district’s classified employees including custodians, teacher assistants, and bus drivers. In 2017, 91 of the district’s 142 classified employees were paid out of local funds rather than state or federal dollars. The nearly $500,000 budget increase for current expense this year in the proposed budget is to add employees to the local payroll including an assistant principal and several school counselors.
Dr. Baldwin said that in the last 10 years, Macon County Schools has only received a $200,000 increase from county commissioners in its annual appropriations. Beginning in the 2008-2009 school year, the county provided the school system with $6,911,000 for operational expenses. That same year, the state provided Macon County with $25,994,033. Now, 10 years later, the county has increased its annual allocation to $7.1 million and the state has increased its allocation to $26,320,138. Dr. Baldwin said that in the last decade, the county has only provided the school system with a 2.8 percent increase in funding. Both federal and state funding has also increased for Macon County during that same time period. As both the state and federal government provided additional funding for teacher positions and programs, the county kept its funding the same, no longer having to make up for budget shortfalls due to inadequate funding on the state level.
Additional funds from the county for capital outlay improvements have also been requested by the district. Capital outlay is defined as money spent to either purchase a fixed asset or to extend its useful life. On Monday night, the board of education voted to submit a request for $3,179,148 for capital projects to commissioners. Last year, the commissioners allocated $600,000 to the schools for both technology and capital improvements, so this year’s request is a $2,579,148 increase over what was allocated for the current school year. The Board of Education’s original request was more than $12 million but at the request of board member Fred Goldsmith, the board removed $9 million in request for three projects at Franklin High School such as $2 million to address drainage issues around the football field, and $4 million to renovate the performing arts building. The Franklin High School expenditures are removed from the capital outlay list because commissioners have already informed the board that a separate discussion was taking place on the future of Franklin High School and the possibility of relocating the facility entirely.
While $9 million was taken off the list approved by board members, the Board of Education elected to leave $1,046,100 for Franklin High School on the list for projects such as $150,000 for perimeter fencing, and another $300,000 for an alarm system at the high school. The approved list also included $225,000 to replace the windows at the high school. Dr. Baldwin said the last he heard, the potential for a new high school was still 10 years down the road, and the more than $1 million in needs aren’t things that can be put off for safety and security reasons.
Other significant capital outlay improvements include $35,000 for epoxy at the bus garage and $30,000 to place storage buildings at Nantahala High School and Franklin High School. The capital outlay budget also includes a request of $191,897 for two new activity buses, a car for the central office, and a drivers education car. There is also nearly $500,000 for replacement plan for iPads and desktops across the district.
The capital outlay request approved by the board includes several items at South Macon Elementary School, although the school is currently slated to have a six room expansion as well as improvements to the cafeteria next school year which will cost more than $2 million, which the county is already paying for.