The money isn’t gone. But it’s close to running out.
At a special called meeting on May 6, school administrators laid out the stark facts for the Asheville City Board of Education. Under current projections, even if the system taps into the entirety of its available reserves to cover expenses for fiscal year 2021-22, the board would still face $865,000 in cuts to balance its budget. And if expenses and revenue trends continue on the same path, the necessary cuts for fiscal year 2022-23 could exceed $2 million.
As previously reported by Xpress (see “Failing arithmetic,” Jan. 27), ACS ranks among North Carolina’s most generously funded school systems per capita; at just over $13,000 per pupil excluding child nutrition, Asheville spends more than all but seven of the state’s 115 public school districts. That spending includes over $5,800 per student in city and county taxes, the second-highest allotment in the state.
To bring those numbers down, suggested ACS Chief Finance Officer Georgia Harvey, the school board must examine the district’s staffing, which accounts for $23.5 million of the projected $30.2 million to be funded by local money next year. “You have to make hard decisions, and they’re generally with people,” she said. “Cutting supplies might help with hundreds of thousands of dollars, but not millions.”
“The people in the room today did not get us here. This has been a historical trend. It’s not something that happened overnight,” Harvey added. (Shaunda Sandford, who had served as the board’s chair since 2015 until being replaced by James Carter on April 26, was the only member to attend the meeting virtually and asked no questions during the budget presentation.)
Superintendent Gene Freeman stressed that he would do everything possible to avoid recommending furloughs of current employees. As a first step toward reducing the personnel budget, he said, ACS should avoid rehiring some nonessential positions as staffers retire or resign.
Mark Dickerson, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, said he aimed to freeze hiring for at least 25 locally funded positions and had identified 18 to date, which together would eliminate about $1 million in costs. Although he did not name specific roles on the chopping block, citing confidentiality rules around personnel decisions, he noted that vacancies currently existed among music, technology and special education staff.
At least three of the recommended hiring freezes, Dickerson added, were in the district’s central office. The ACS administration is particularly large for the system’s size, with 19 “official administrators and managers” for an average daily attendance of about 4,100 students, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. By comparison, Buncombe County Schools employs 17 administrators for an average attendance of 22,560 students.
If staff attrition doesn’t deliver the needed savings, however, Freeman said he would advocate for cutting the district’s local supplement before furloughing employees. That money, paid from local taxes on top of state-mandated minimum salaries, averages about $4,600 per year for ACS teachers.
“Then you would have a minor riot,” remarked Carter.
“Well, if you start furloughing a lot of people, you’re also going to have a riot,” Freeman responded. “There’s no good choice, at least to me.”