The Buncombe County Schools’ main office is sprawling, labyrinthine, contradictory: half-outdated and half-modern, navigated via circuitous hallways that all look the same yet somehow seem different. One particular stretch of floor is covered by a decades-old, lime-green commercial carpet that seems like some kind of cruel joke.
Indeed, the building’s immensity is matched only by its complexity, making it, in a sense, the perfect emblem of public education today — so what better place to stage a forum on the topic?
Sponsored by WNC for Public Education, a coalition of local parents, teachers and other residents, the Oct. 9 event brought together candidates for the state House and Senate, the county Board of Commissioners and the county Board of Education. And though the latter group tends to take a back seat to those other entities when it comes to educational policy debates, school board members are, in fact, the elected officials most closely connected to local school systems’ day-to-day operations (see sidebar, “What the School Board Does”).
The board’s seven members serve four-year, rotating terms, with one representative from each of Buncombe County’s six districts, plus an at-large member. Six of the seven candidates attended the forum; Erwin District contender Jason Summey did not. Summey subsequently gave Xpress written answers to the same questions asked at the event, however, and some of his responses are included here. (Note: Board members for the Asheville City Schools are appointed, not elected, so they weren’t included in the forum. For the same reason, all financial figures in this article and the accompanying charts refer solely to the Buncombe County Schools, unless otherwise specified.)
Even though the school board must conform to state educational policy and is totally dependent on various levels of government for funding, many candidates made it clear that they see the board’s responsibility as extending beyond the nuts and bolts of keeping the system running.
“A school board member has a dual role: both to support the mission of public education for all of our students and to oversee the working of that in practice,” said Nancy Cooper. “They have to maneuver on both sides of it in a tactful and direct way.”
Many candidates acknowledged that the job entails a substantial amount of advocacy on behalf of the district they’re representing and its parents, students and teachers.
“Maybe the most important [component],” said Pat Bryant, “is the role of board members to work together to advocate for and promote the many positive aspects of our schools and our school system.”
Stephanie Buckner sounded a similar note, saying, “I hear everywhere I go about budgeting; budgeting is extremely important. But also important is being a liaison: You’re there representing your district, parents, teachers. And part of being a board member is helping your district be the best: helping them succeed.”
Lisa Baldwin, meanwhile, said: “We represent all the parents and children in Buncombe County. We represent the teachers. I feel all the stakeholders need a voice and a representative.”
And Cindy McMahon noted: “We have 25,000 kids in our schools, and seven members on the school board. It is the responsibility of every one of those school board members to advocate for our public schools.”
At the same time, said Summey, “It is not the role of a school board member to get involved in the day-to-day running of individual schools or the direct supervision of principals and teachers.”
Money, money, money
A familiar theme snaking through the evening concerned money, whether in the form of school funding, budgets or pay.
“There are several issues [to work on]: Among those is the issue of the budget and funding,” said Max Queen. “That topic encompasses teacher salaries, teacher assistants, support positions, instructional materials, tech and operations.”
“We need to maximize and protect our resources,” said McMahon. “We need to make good decisions on our finances.”
Per pupil expenditure comprises all education-related expenses: employee salaries and benefits, purchased services, supplies and materials, and instructional equipment. Most of those categories have seen severe budget cuts over the last several years. At the forum, candidates were asked how they would maximize available dollars and secure other funding sources in light of those budget cuts and the county schools’ poor ranking in per pupil funding (see accompanying charts).
“We need to look with a critical eye at every aspect and not have any sacred cows,” said Cooper.
“We need to continue to make good decisions in ways that will benefit students in both short term and long term,” said McMahon. “We need to build relationships with those who hold the purse strings.”
Bryant, too, talked about prioritizing resources and seeking partnerships with “local and statewide business leaders.” In addition, he said, “We must continue to look for and secure grant funding to help leverage the resources we have. Buncombe County Schools has recently received two major grants — one for $2.5 million and one for $1.2 million — that will help support program areas.”
Grants, though, are notoriously fickle. They’re for a limited time span and have to be renewed, and when belts tighten, they’re usually the first thing to go. Just this year (2014-15), the county schools lost $350,000 in federal Race to the Top money.
Buckner acknowledged that uncertainty, saying, “I think the best thing we could do … is keep most of the funding as close to home as possible. I think this will eliminate ‘strings-attached programs’ that leave our schools in the lurch in the long run.”
Many of the candidates stressed the need to cooperate with the county commissioners, who play a key role in funding both the city and the county schools.
This school year, Buncombe County spent about $78 million on education, all told (including the city and county systems and A-B Tech). That accounts for 26.6 percent of the county’s $292 million general fund budget — a $3.1 million increase over 2013-14.
Those local dollars reach into every aspect of the educational process. But in light of the county schools’ poor ranking in state funding, said Baldwin, “this gives the responsibility for filling the gap to the county commissioners, but they have not stepped up to the plate. The amount of property tax revenues going to our school system has declined from 43 percent down to 41 percent just over the past several years.”
By far the largest portion of the school system’s budget goes for salaries and benefits — a key factor in employee recruitment and retention. When asked about this subject, every single candidate mentioned teacher pay.
“The first item that immediately comes to mind is compensation,” said Cooper. “Small steps were made in the legislative budget this year, and we need to increase that in the upcoming years.”
“I think what we need to do is evaluate our teacher pay,” said Buckner. “We need to make sure that is fair, and … we need to make sure that funding is on the books for the long term.”
The current state budget gave newer teachers significant raises, but more experienced educators didn’t fare as well, receiving smaller percentage increases. State lawmakers also eliminated longevity pay — a kind of bonus for teachers with more years on the job — after the current school year ends. In addition, the new budget ended pay increases for earning a master’s degree and axed the long-running Teaching Fellows Program, which gave scholarships to high school seniors in exchange for at least four years of teaching in state schools.
“Pay for graduate degrees is common sense,” said Cooper. “You work hard for your master’s degree; you need to be compensated. I think that’s a standard business practice.”
“I believe the Teaching Fellows Program should be reinstituted by the state,” said Baldwin. “We also need to offer master’s degree pay, and that’s something I would like the board to petition the state legislators for as well.”
“I think N.C. Teaching Fellows is one of the premier teacher recruitment and development programs in the nation,” said Queen. “Fellows were employed in 99 of N.C.’s 100 counties. I would implore the state Legislature to rethink their position on Fellows and reinstate that.”
Queen also cited the widely reported exodus of teachers from the state, saying, “Teacher pay is an essential component in North Carolina’s ability to keep the best teachers, particularly when the neighboring states offer significantly higher incentives to be in the classroom.”
Wake County, the state’s largest school district, saw 600 teachers leave during the 2013-14 school year. And in May, the Houston Independent School District began running newspaper ads promising Raleigh and Wake County teachers $47,000 in starting pay. Up until this year, the starting salary for a North Carolina public school teacher was $30,800 (not including local supplements), and despite the big raises just given to new teachers, the state still pays them only $33,000 per year.
That puts a heavy burden on local funding.
The county commissioners impact teacher earnings in two key ways: by paying the salaries of many noncertified school staff, and by providing a supplement to what the state pays teachers. Counties throughout North Carolina give teachers additional money based on how many years of experience they have. Buncombe County’s teacher supplement, according to the Buncombe County Association of Educators website, ranges from 6.3 percent of total salary (for a new teacher with less than five years’ experience) to 11.7 percent (for those with over 30 years). These supplements aren’t mandatory — they vary by county and can be changed — but they remain a critical component of retaining teachers and creating competitive salaries:
“We must continue to support the generous local supplement that is provided to certified and noncertified personnel,” said Bryant. “This is a vital resource to both retention and recruitment, and it goes a long way toward the success our students achieve.”
Baldwin, in particular, believes local dollars should be put to further use: “I believe we should make an effort to use county dollars to give extra supplemental pay to highly qualified teachers in [math and special education]. I also believe we should offer bonuses to experienced teachers who are willing to work in low-performing schools. That should not be where we’re concentrating new teachers.”
Charter schools remain controversial (see sidebar, “Charter Schools 101”), and board candidates were asked what kind of relationship the school system should have with them.
Pat Bryant didn’t mince words, saying, “While I have my own thoughts on charter schools, what matters most is what I’m elected to do, and that is to be a board member for Buncombe County Schools. We have many issues and opportunities presented to us each day, and if I am spending any of my time working with anything that takes away from the work of the Buncombe County Schools, I’m not doing what I was elected to do.”
Bryant later told Xpress: “Buncombe County has nothing to do with charter schools. They’re designated public schools by the state, but they have their own Charter School Advisory Board under the State Board of Education.”
Cooper also mentioned this. “Charter schools are public schools, not to be confused with private schools, which I have found to be confusing with some folks. They are public schools and publicly funded.”
Baldwin pointed out that these schools were envisioned as a way to experiment with different approaches, noting, “The intention of the law that created the charter school system is that they would be learning labs for traditional public schools. Different children need different learning environments, and parents want choices. This does not mean that one environment is better than another; it just means that every child has different strengths and needs.”
McMahon, too, highlighted the two systems’ different roles. “Our traditional public schools are set up to serve all students and are committed to doing that,” she said. “Charter schools can provide options and can function as a lab to try out different approaches to education.”
But several candidates also raised concerns about the fact that charter schools aren’t held to the same standards as conventional public schools.
“Charter performance has been mixed in N.C. as well as nationally,” said Queen. “In order to compare traditional public education to charter/private models, there would need to be a level playing field. There needs to be … accountability and transparency.”
McMahon also brought up the specter of inequity: “Our traditional public schools are set up to serve all students and are committed to doing that. … What we have learned in the history of our country is that separate but equal does not work. … While I support creating the opportunity for families and children to have options, if we’re going to continue to have charter schools, we have to find a way to work more closely together.”
Summey, meanwhile, had a different angle. “One of the biggest concerns the school board should have about charter schools is whether or not the allocation of student funding will follow the student on a prorated basis. In other words, if a student enrolls in a charter school and, after a couple of months, isn’t satisfied and returns to the traditional public school, which school will receive the funding for that student for the remainder of the year?”
School board members must consider all of these issues as they work to maintain a functioning school system. But because of the complexity of public education and the inevitable ideological differences among stakeholders, many of these candidates also emphasized the importance of another key factor: morale.
“The role of board members is to work together to advocate for and promote the many positive aspects of our schools,” said McMahon. “We need to tell the story of the successes of Buncombe County Schools.”
Bryant sounded a similar note, saying, “I believe we, as a board and as a school system, must continue to promote the many great things going on each and every day in Buncombe County Schools. Graduation numbers were 83.2 percent: the highest ever in the county.”
Summey also accentuated the positive, noting, “While Buncombe County may be in the lower tier of per pupil funding when local funds are added to the state funding, our state test scores are near the top tier.”
And as Buckner put it, “One of the most important things we can do is make Buncombe County Schools a hospitable environment for our teachers to teach. We need to let our teachers know we support them and appreciate them.”
To view the forum in its entirety, check the WNC for Public Education Facebook page.