ACS puts mental health support at top of budget priority

BUDGET TALK: Despite a $5.7 million shortfall, Asheville City Schools Superintendent Maggie Fehrman, right, has proposed $2.1 million in additional funding for more mental health and behavioral supports for district schools. Also pictured is board Chair George Sieburg. Photo by Greg Parlier

As the Asheville City Board of Education works through next year’s budget, the annual question is how much money it will seek from the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners at the annual joint budget work session Thursday, May 9. Buncombe County sets the tax rate and approves funding for both local public school districts beyond the state allocation.

As state funding falls with enrollment and $1 million in COVID-era federal funding ends, the district is facing a $5.7 million gap before new funding requests and projected savings are considered, Superintendent Maggie Fehrman reported to the board April 15.

Fehrman projects the district will request $3.8 million more than last year’s $16.1 million allocation from the county.

The budget, in its current form, is a loose framework of priorities, as no projections from any of the district’s funding sources are available at this stage in the process, said Heidi Kerns, ACS’ chief financial officer. Instead of those projections, Kerns is assuming the district will have a revenue-neutral budget except for a loss of state funds due to projected declining enrollment.

Addressing mental health

This year’s request will include $2.1 million to add staff for student mental health and behavior issues. According to listening sessions and surveys of teachers and staff, Fehrman said ACS educators overwhelmingly ranked these matters as the top issues facing the district.

In the 2022-23 school year, there were 131 referrals for school-based therapy at ACS schools. This year, there has already been more than twice that number with a month left in the school year.

Additionally, school staff has referred students to the office 1,914 times this year, half of which are coming from 1% of students, Fehrman said. That means there are students whose needs are not being met, and teachers need more support to address those needs, she added.

“We’ve seen the intensity of behaviors significantly increase from pre-COVID, to post-COVID. One of the areas that we’ve seen a huge increase in is students with substance abuse. And those always end up as office referrals,” Fehrman told the board.

Fehrman is requesting $500,000 to pay two full-time mental health professionals and two full-time behavior interventionists to provide direct services to students and training for staff.

She is also asking for $175,000 to add two social workers to the district’s staff of five. Fehrman hopes to reduce ACS’ ratio from one social worker for every 780 students to one for every 557. The National Association of Social Workers recommends a ratio of 1-to-250 students in most schools and 1-to-150 in areas with more intensive needs, according to Fehrman’s presentation.

There is another $175,000 request to add two full-time school counselors to get ACS’ ratio close to the American Association of School Counselors’ recommended ratio.

ACS also will get two additional school resource officers next school year, supplied by the Asheville Police Department, bringing the total number to five, with a full-time officer at both Asheville High School and Asheville Middle School, said April Dockery, ACS director of operations. The other three officers will be split between the district’s five elementary schools.

The district will pay APD each officer’s salary quarterly, not to exceed a total of $325,000 a year for all five officers, according to the contract.

Dockery reported the change, in part, comes as APD is less understaffed than it has been in recent years, and the relationship between the district and the agency is improving under new APD Chief Mike Lamb.

“We see it more as a partnership,” she said.

Projected savings

Fehrman says she believes the district can save $500,000 with a new staffing formula, the details of which are still being worked out. She projects other savings — including $350,000 to reduce the supplies, materials and equipment budget, $475,000 in a central office staff reduction and savings from consolidating the two district middle schools — will help reduce the amount they have to ask county commissioners for.

When pressed on whether these savings will result in staffing cuts, district spokesperson Kim Dechant said the district was working to “right size our district through attrition.”

“As we are working on our K-12 teacher allotments and enrollment, we are moving teachers into new grades to fill vacancies and transferring teachers who have submitted a transfer request to fill positions at other schools,” she said.

Previous superintendents have replaced employees who leave the district without considering enrollment changes at a particular school, while Fehrman is being “extremely intentional in her development of a staffing allotment formula based on student enrollment,” Dechant added.

Fehrman also said the district will use $3 million from the fund balance while still maintaining the gold standard of two months of operating expenses in reserve.

Additionally, Fehrman announced that Jo Landreth, principal at Asheville Middle School, will take over as director of safety and logistics in the central office this summer. The district will begin an external search for a new principal this spring to lead the reconfiguration as Montford North Star Academy is set to merge with AMS next school year, according to a news release.

Board member Rebecca Strimer asked staff to outline how the budget aligns with requests from the Asheville City Association of Educators, which recently delivered a petition to board members asking for increased pay, more student service supports like behavior specialists and an increase in staff planning time. Fehrman said no significant supplement raises for staff are included in the proposed budget.

District staff is scheduled to meet with the county budget staff to review its requests Monday, April 22, ahead of the May 9 formal presentation to county commissioners.

Bacoate Branch Trail

The school board delayed a vote on granting the City of Asheville permission to extend the Bacoate Branch Trail through Asheville Middle School property after members asked how well the city has communicated with the school’s neighbors about the project.

The proposed unpaved trail would wrap behind the athletic fields on the AMS property and wind through the woods down toward Clingman Avenue Extension near The Grey Eagle. To the north, the trail would wind behind four homes on Charles Street and connect to Aston Park.

Fehrman said the board had received comments from the project’s neighbors, including during public comment April 15, that they were not in favor of the project and had not been contacted by city officials.

Lucy Crown, transportation planning manager for the City of Asheville, presented the project to the school board at its March 4 work session and included information about the city’s public engagement campaign, which she said included two neighborhood group meetings and three meetings with directly adjacent neighbors.

The school board will take the matter up at its May meeting.


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One thought on “ACS puts mental health support at top of budget priority

  1. John Brigham

    A foundation of training for teachers is this idea: Student behavior and classroom management starts with the lesson plan; give the students activities that they can do and they will behave. COVID comes along and suddenly schools have a mental health crisis. What?! I am a modern man and go to Google with this question. Guess what! American students are in a crisis of mental health. This is everywhere. So, it must be true! I enjoy our new world but do not believe in any of it.

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