Improving early childhood education is already one of Buncombe County’s main strategic goals, and the county’s budget allocates over $3.75 million toward that purpose in the current fiscal year alone. But if the Board of Commissioners follows a set of recommendations presented to its members Feb. 15, an even larger wave of investment could be on the way.
Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, who chairs the board’s Early Childhood and Development Committee, outlined a plan for $7.5 million in additional spending on prekindergarten expansion over the next two years. About $3.2 million would support a pilot program for increasing capacity in existing pre-K classrooms, as described in a December report by the Buncombe Partnership for Children; the remaining $4.3 million would pay for the construction and outfitting of new classrooms. Funding would come from the county’s roughly $27 million in remaining federal American Rescue Plan Act money.
According to a presentation shared by Rachael Nygaard, Buncombe’s strategic partnerships director, work would primarily supplement and expand the county’s participation in the state-supported NC Pre-K program. About 35% of nearly 1,200 Buncombe children eligible for the program, which is offered at no cost to families, are currently enrolled; the county hopes to boost that percentage to 75% by 2030.
The most expensive part of the pilot plan, estimated to cost about $1.75 over two years, is a supplement to the money North Carolina pays pre-K providers for each child enrolled in the program. According to the Buncombe Partnership for Children’s report, the state’s annual per-child reimbursement rate doesn’t cover the actual cost of providing care; while some providers, like public school systems, can access other funding to make up the difference, many private classrooms currently lose money by accepting NC Pre-K students.
Other strategies that would be funded include increasing outreach to eligible families, supporting ongoing education for pre-K teachers and offering transportation to children who couldn’t otherwise reach a classroom. If the county board approves the plan, implementation could begin as early as July.
“This is the chance that we can see, over the next two years, that we can excel,” said Commissioner Robert Pressley, who serves with Beach-Ferrara on the Early Childhood and Development Committee. He suggested that pre-K expansion was a particularly pressing concern for the county, given an expected influx of children from the families of workers at new manufacturing facilities like the Pratt & Whitney aerospace factory.
Once ARPA funds run out, the county would have to find different financial support to continue the new pre-K initiatives, Beach-Ferrara said. She noted that early childhood education investments have bipartisan backing at the federal level, although a large source of potential funding, included as a provision of the Build Back Better Act, had failed to pass Congress last year.
“Once this one-time funding is gone, these may be things that we just have to commit to some significant additional county funding to continue,” added board Chair Brownie Newman. “We should just go into that in a really clear-eyed way.”
The full Buncombe Partnership for Children report is available at avl.mx/b92.
Indoor mask mandate expires
Commissioners allowed Buncombe’s indoor mask mandate to expire at noon Feb. 16, having previously extended the measure several times since reestablishing it last Aug. 18. No board member spoke in favor of continuing the mandate or made a motion to keep it in place.
Stacie Saunders, the county’s public health director, said her department continued to “strongly recommend individuals continue to wear masks in indoor public spaces.” Her guidance aligned with that of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends indoor masking in areas of substantial or high coronavirus transmission. (As of Feb. 17, Buncombe’s weekly rate of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents was 438, more than quadruple the CDC’s high-transmission threshold of 100 cases per 100,000.)
Masks will remain mandatory at some county buildings, including public-facing Health and Human Services offices and the Detention Center. The Buncombe County Courthouse continues to require masks, and a federal mask requirement remains in place for buses and other public transportation through Friday, March 18.
Newman emphasized that businesses and organizations throughout the county can continue to require masks on their premises on an individual basis. “We ask people to respect that,” he said. “If you feel strongly against that, then we would encourage you to choose other places to go.”
But Pressley, who owns Celebrity’s Hot Dogs in Bent Creek, said the mandate had not worked for his business and that he would be dropping the requirement as soon as possible. “It’s time for America to carry on,” he said.