Public comment hearing on the budget set for Tuesday.
The Macon County Board of Education (BOE) met with county commissioners Tuesday night for a work session to continue to try to work through budget constraints. The BOE is facing a budget shortfall this year and made its final attempt to secure funds Tuesday night, requesting $440,000 from the county in addition to funds that have already been granted. The schools originally approached the county with a request of $9.6 million for the 2013- 2014 school year, but were only granted $7.1 million.
After returning to the drawing board and going over their budget, school board members along with Interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Duncan and finance officer Angie Cook whittled down their budget by $914,000. As it stands, Duncan believes that schools can operate on a budget of $7.559 million.
“I think the state has forgotten its responsibility to its schools,” said Duncan. “They are doing a poor job of taking care of the public school system. They don't realize what we're going through at the local level.”
At the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, Macon County schools were $550,000 in the red, but with a budget of $6.9 million appropriated from the county and a fund balance of $1 million, that shortfall was covered. Then came a 1.2 percent salary increase that was passed down from the state, insurance increases, and an increase in retirement contributions that were not covered in the budget.
“We're going to end up in the positive, I feel certain,” said Duncan. “Despite that, this year has been full of pain. We've cut, cut, cut.”
In preparation for the upcoming year, Duncan said the school board will not rehire 11 or 12 teaching positions that are currently in place; will cut some clerical positions; will not pay for referees at all sporting events; and will cut software expenses.
In the past, the county has also provided a two percent supplement to teachers in order to help the county stay competitive.
“North Carolina is notorious for having low teacher pay,” said Duncan. “There's people going five or six miles down the road and making more.”
County Manager Jack Horton has suggested that the supplement remain in the budget, but Duncan suggested that the $430,000 be used to keep the number of teacher positions as close to the current number as possible if the county does not grant the request being made.
“If you all were to come back to us expressing your desire to use this money, I think we would be okay with reallocating it,” said County Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin.
As it stands, 31 first year teachers will be laid off and 11 positions will be absorbed completely, but Duncan believes that if the request is granted, the majority will be able to reapply and come back, while some of the teachers have already made plans to leave.
When the floor opened up to comments from the commissioners and school board members, Corbin reflected on how the county has come to this dilemma.
“We've worked on this together, it's not a situation where it's us against you,” said Corbin. “Part of our thinking about two or three years ago in regards to the fund balance situation was that we have to meet our operating obligations and then hopefully in two or three years the recession will end and state funding will come back. That was our discussion and that hasn't happened so here we are. If we can find some additional money then I would certainly consider the request.”
If the positions were to be lost, class sizes would have to be increased.
“The state has suggested getting rid of class sizes, but in this day and time I just don't think that is going to work,” he said. “What happens if tragedy strikes and we have to hurry these large classes away from danger?”
If positions were to be cut as proposed without the $440,000, then it is likely that classes with small numbers like advanced placement courses would be done away with to allow remaining teachers to teach a larger number of students.
In defense of AP courses, school board member Stephanie McCall of Highlands addressed the commissioners.
“There's kids that need these advanced placement courses to get in to good colleges, to contend with other applicants,” she said. “My daughter took these classes and without them she wouldn't have been able to go to the school she wanted where she got in to a competitive program. I hate having to come here to ask for money, but the students have the right to a great education.”
Comissioner Paul Higdon was concerned about what would happen next year.
“We're going to have to address the problem,” he said. “If we do grant this request, I'm just afraid that you're going to be back here next year and we'll be going through the same thing.”