Parents, teachers and Asheville City Schools administrators urged increased school funding during a public hearing at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ June 5 meeting. The county’s draft budget for fiscal year 2008, which begins July 1, would maintain the current tax rate for the city schools. But without a tax increase, inflation and built-in cost increases would result in program cuts, outgoing Asheville City Schools Superintendent Robert Logan told the commissioners.
The county levies a separate tax paid by Asheville residents to fund the city schools. The county schools are funded out of general revenues. In order to maintain current programs, the school-tax rate would have to be increased from 15 cents to 17 cents. In the wake of the 2006 property revaluation, the rate was reduced from 20 cents to 15; but because of the increase in property values, most programs were not immediately affected. Now, however, more money is needed, said Logan. Without the increase, 17 teaching assistants will have to be laid off, and some programs—including the Randolph Learning Center—will be cut or curtailed. “Education is a people business,” he noted. “The lion’s share of our resources are used for salaries.”
In arguing for an increase, Logan emphasized the city system’s strong performance. “Last year, Asheville had the second-highest SATs in the state [after Chapel Hill]. This year, 92 percent of our third-graders are proficient at reading. That’s the first time we’ve ever broken the 90th percentile.” Much of that success, he said, can be attributed to small class size, and a funding cut would inevitably lead to larger classes.
“The budget shortfall can be attributed to two factors,” he asserted. “First there is the annual increase in expenses. [The cost-of-living] salary increase is about 7.1 percent across the board. The second cause is an increase in workers’ compensation costs. We’ve brought that cost down by requiring that before you can file for workers’ comp, you have to take a substance-abuse test—and it’s worked.” Logan paused, then added, “That surprised me, too.”
Finally, he told commissioners, “A 17-cent supplemental tax would only add about $44 to taxes for the average homeowner, based on the $219,534 average assessment in the city.”
Bob McGrattan, the school system’s Superintendent for Human Resources, reported that “Thirty-seven percent of Asheville’s students come from public housing, and 33 percent are on the [subsidized] lunch program.” He said it was impressive “that we are second to Chapel Hill, which has a far lower poverty rate.” He added that “Ninety-four percent of the dollars we get go to schools and children.”
A dozen other speakers also urged the commissioners to support the budget request. Kathleen Riddle, a full-time substitute teacher, asked, “What could possibly be more important than funding education?” Her son Jacob Jay echoed her sentiments, drawing extended applause.
Community activist Keith Thompson, who has two children in the city system, noted, “The dropout rate for freshmen went from 56 in the 2005-06 school year to only two this year.”
Keena Proctor, a teaching assistant at Isaac Dickson Elementary, stressed that teaching assistants are critical to the success of schools because, besides providing clerical support, they work with small groups of students who need extra help. “Please support that budget, because you’re going to be losing 17 teachers, not teacher assistants,” she said.
Ben Scales, president of the Dickson PTO, said: “It’s one of the best-funded and best-performing school districts in the state. When you’re getting bang for the buck, it’s worth it.”
Randolph Learning Center teacher Cedric Nash said his personal dedication to the Asheville system had led him to take a pay cut to return to the city after a decade away in the military and another teaching post. “I want to give back,” he explained, adding that a funding cut would hamper his efforts.
His wife, Jennifer Nash, was even more impassioned as she said, “I understand that Randolph may be on the chopping block if this increase isn’t approved. I’ve watched my husband change the lives of children at that school.” She choked up as she talked about the letters he’s received from former students, thanking him for changing their lives. The Nash children also attend city schools.
Mary Webber, a volunteer tutor with two children in the city system, said: “Cutting teachers is going to cut the number of classes and result in larger class size. How are we going to attract employers if we don’t support our schools?”
Parent Vincent Wrenn told the commissioners: “A lot of people look at the arts as an extra. It really isn’t.” He cited a study showing “that creative and criminal minds are flip sides. If creativity isn’t engaged, there is a tendency to go to toward criminality.” The county, Wrenn suggested, can either pay for schools now or deal with the costs of criminal behavior later.
Swannanoa resident Eric Gorney called on the commissioners to offset any tax increase with cuts elsewhere. “If you increase taxes by 2 cents for city schools, I’d ask you to reduce the county tax rate by 2 cents.
Some speakers addressed other areas of county spending. County resident Rick Jenkins, a NASCAR employee, told commissioners: “Somebody is not being truthful about what’s going on in the Sheriff’s Department. In the Asheville Citizen-Times today there is a picture of a pretty cruiser that says it cost $20,040. But fully equipped, they cost $12,000 more.” Replacing Ford Crown Victorias with Dodge Chargers was a poor choice, he said. Jenkins also criticized Sheriff Van Duncan, saying, “He spent $90,000 for a sheriff transition. I spoke to departments across the state; some places they do that for zero.”
Chairman Nathan Ramsey called on County Manager Wanda Greene to respond to the question about the new cruisers. “We did pay $20,400 per car, and they were equipped for $2,500 each,” said Greene. “The Charger gets 3 miles per gallon better than the Crown Vic, and when you drive 3 million miles per year, that really adds up. We believe we made the right choice. We’re also trying a thinner light bar that should help with gas mileage.”
Armed with hand-drawn posters, Candler resident Jerry Rice voiced broader concerns about the county budget. Spending, he said, has swelled from $199 million in 2000 to the $304 million proposed for 2008. “Buncombe County must have new leaders in 2008,” Rice declared, adding, “I’m sorry to say this, but you-uns must go!”
The commissioners will vote on the budget, including any adjustments made in response to comments, on June 19.
COPs and robbers?
The board also conducted a public hearing on five proposed certificates of participation. Known as COPs, these financial instruments allow municipalities to borrow against the projected increase in property-tax revenues to finance certain types of development. The controversial financial tool, also called tax-increment financing, was narrowly approved by state voters in a 2004 referendum.The county holds the funded assets as collateral, and the additional revenues are then used to repay the loans. Among the projects slated for COPs funding is the new animal shelter on Brevard Road.
“I’d like for you to go to UNC-TV and see the program devoted to this issue in Raleigh with the General Assembly,” Rice told the commissioners. “If they’re having trouble with the program, you ought to watch out.”
“We’re smarter than that,” replied Commissioner Bill Stanley.
“I doubt that,” retorted Rice.
“I doubt that too, Mr. Stanley,” added Jupiter resident Don Yelton. “I’ve seen this county write a contract without a termination clause.” He then told the commissioners, “I don’t trust the nonprofit running the animal shelter. … If we build the animal shelter, is everything the county pays for going to remain the property of the county forever?”
Finance Director Donna Clark said the county would hold those assets.
The COPs proposal was approved 5-0.
The plane truth
Airport Director Dave Edwards proposed the creation of an independent airport authority. Noting that the city/county agreement authorizing the airport authority doesn’t expire until 2018, he added: “We think there is a great opportunity to get a jump on it; we know how time flies. Any changes in the next 10 years of the agreement require agreement by the city and county.” Edwards noted that aside from one outstanding county bond issue, the airport is “fully self-sustaining and a regional asset [with] an estimated $238 million annual economic impact on the region.”
The plan Edwards laid out would add Henderson County as an active partner, reduce the governing board from seven members to five, and transfer control or ownership of the airport property to the independent entity. The state Senate has already approved a bill authorizing creation of the authority, said Edwards, and the House is awaiting feedback from the affected local governments before taking action. Three alternatives are being considered, he said. Option A calls for transferring the property from the city to the new authority. Option B would have the city lease the property to the authority. Option C is to “do nothing and let the current contract expire.”
Commissioner David Gantt said: “It’s appropriate, because we’ve got legislation pending in Raleigh, that we act on it right away. I’d like for us to consider option A, with five members, and grandfather the seven on the board now until their terms expire.”
Commissioner David Young sounded a cautionary note, saying, “If it’s OK, I’d like to ask our manager to talk to the city. I don’t want to get sideways with the city.”
“I think it would help for the county to take a position,” suggested Edwards.
Gantt: “Let’s get on record that our preference is A with five members but grandfather the seven members until their terms expire, but that we are willing to accept B, and ask our county manager to negotiate with the city.”
The board unanimously approved Gantt’s proposal.
Personal and environmental health
Staff coordinator Jennifer Tyner offered a lengthy report on HealthNet of Buncombe County, a public/private initiative to help uninsured county residents obtain health care. Tyner, who’s been working under Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone, said that roughly one-quarter of county residents ages 18 to 64 are uninsured, and 18 organizations and agencies are working together to create the program, which aims to reduce the inappropriate use of emergency services. “We hope to introduce the HealthNet concept to the citizens by August; certainly by fall we’ll begin to enroll people,” said Tyner.
Young proposed asking the Environmental Advisory Board to review county government’s energy-conservation practices and report back to the commissioners. “The new windows on the courthouse are a good start,” he said, “but only a start.” All five commissioners voted in favor.
On a different front, the board unanimously approved a contract with American South, a general contractor with offices in Asheville, to build the College Street parking deck. The company’s $12 million bid, the lowest one received, came in about $1 million below the initial estimate, reported Planning Director Jon Creighton.
The commissioners also made the following board appointments: Latrella McElrath, Greg Phillips and Michelle Pace Wood (Board of Adjustment); Dr. John Langlois and James Torpey (Council on Aging); Susanne Swanger (Board of Health); and Dr. David McClain (Social Services Board). The latter two represent cross-appointments—part of the consolidation of social services now under way. McClain is head of the Board of Health and Swanger serves on the Social Services Board.