The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is approaching the homestretch for finalizing a budget for fiscal year 2017. During its meeting on Tuesday, May 31, the board heard concerns about attracting and retaining teachers amid budget requests from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools. Funding for ACS and BCS will be split on a per-pupil basis, so while both districts make funding requests, they will ultimately divide the money allocated based on the number of students in each district. County Manager Wanda Greene also presented what she said is “a balanced budget that holds the tax rate and maintains a AAA bond rating.”
Only five of the board’s seven members attended the meeting, with former Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl having stepped down in May and Commissioner Holly Jones absent for personal reasons.
Buncombe County Schools kicked off the education funding requests with Superintendent Tony Baldwin making his case for the district’s request of $66,608,463, an increase $3,986,171 from the current budget year. Baldwin lauded the commissioners’ support of the school system over the years, noting that federal funding continues to decrease, leaving his district to lean more heavily on the county. He noted that federal funding made up 15 percent of BCS’ budget in 2011-12 and only 8 percent of the budget for 2015-16. Over the same period, state funding has increased from 62 to 64 percent while county funding has grown from 23 to 28 percent. To combat the loss of funding over the years he said, “Our budget strategies included eliminating or absorbing 167 positions across the system,” adding that “attrition has helped.” Other cost-saving initiatives include reducing hours for various instructional and media assistants.
Among BCS’ budget request is $1.3 million for the new Enka Intermediate School. Baldwin said, “When we open a new school … the bottom line is the state never funds all positions needed. When you get to unified arts such as health and physical education, fine arts and AP courses, we have to come to you to ask for help. We believe that Enka kids deserve the same curriculum that we have in the other districts.” He said the budget request represents 23 new teaching and staff positions. BCS is also asking for $199,839 for Nesbitt Discovery Academy.
Baldwin says the most pressing issue facing BCS is becoming an attractive destination for emerging educators. To that end, he is asking the county to fund local supplements for licensed staff. “The thing that concerns us is for both Asheville City Schools, and Henderson and Transylvania counties. … They have an 8.5 [percent] supplement to start out. For a Buncombe County schoolteacher, you would have to commit 20 years in the classroom before seeing that 8.5 on our current scale,” said Baldwin. He noted that’s just the local competition and doesn’t include larger cities in North Carolina. He added that there is a shrinking pool of teacher candidates, citing a UNC system report that showed a 30 percent decline in education majors since 2010.
“We had 65 brand-new teachers to classrooms, and that’s the pattern we see as retirees leave. It’s important to make sure they remain in the profession,” said Baldwin, noting that of the district’s 2,078 licensed employees, 404 of them have zero to four years of experience. In comparison, BCS has 110 licensed staff with 30 or more years of experience.
Ultimately, BCS is asking the county to commit $3.2 million to local supplements that would boost a teacher with zero to four years of experience to the 8.5 percent local supplement and, on the high end, to 16 percent for teachers with 30 or more years of experience. Buncombe County increased local supplements in 2008-09 and was slated to start increasing that commitment, but the economic downturn eliminated the county’s ability to do so, and the initiative has not been revisited since. Commission Chair David Gantt said, “You’re basically just asking for what you asked for eight years ago.”
You can view the BCS funding request proposal in its entirety here.
Meanwhile, ACS Superintendent Pamela Baldwin is requesting $65,753,408, an increase of $3,131,115 from the previous budget year. The city district is looking to increase teacher pay, with about $400,000 going to match the proposed increase at the state level. The ACS superintendent is asking for $71,903 to expand preschool programs noting, “Expansion of preschool is near and dear to my heart, and we believe that preschools are where we should be headed, and we are asking for support to provide that for our community.”
The city district also has capital requests to help with aging buildings such as $965,00 for roof repairs at Jones Elementary and $270,000 for roof repairs at Claxton Elementary. Pamela Baldwin also says Asheville High has a leaky roof that needs repairs. County staff says that roof repair could cost upward of $25 million.
You can view the entire ACS funding request proposal here.
A-B Tech wrapped up the funding requests with Dennis King, president of the community college, asking the county for $6,397,522, up $333,526 from the current budget year. Some of the needs associated with the request include $582,400 for electricity in the school’s new 169,543-square-foot Allied Health Building and $25,000 for a parking deck elevator. King notes the college has initiated cost-reduction efforts such as moving staff from the Haynes Tower, resulting in a savings of $500,000 in utilities. He says the college has also eliminated about 14 positions over the past two years to the tune of $500,000 in savings noting, “We’re doing everything we can to be good stewards of county and state money.”
A-B Tech is also the beneficiary of recent donations, including a $5 million gift from Jack and Carolyn Ferguson that will be doled out in $1 million installments over five years. The school also sold naming rights to its new conference center to Mission Health Center for $1 million to be paid over the next 10 years. A-B Tech will also receive $5.4 million in bond referendum money, with $4.5 million going to building repairs and the rest to various needs at the college’s Madison County campus.
You can view A-B Tech’s request for funding in its entirety here.
The three-hour meeting wrapped up with County Manager Greene giving an update on the proposed budget for FY 2017. The proposed budget would be $407,169,686 and keep the property tax rate at 60.4 cents per $100 of valued property. However, property revaluations are due to arrive in mid-January, giving the county a revenue boost.
Greene said over the past 10 years the county has eliminated 55 positions “while still providing a tremendous amount of service.”
Education would account for the second-largest expenditure, with only human services ahead of it. The county is looking at giving public education $89,253,475 for the upcoming budget year. For FY 2016, the county spent $87,049,888 on education.
You can view a more detailed account of proposed county expenditures for FY 2017 here.
Green also expressed concern about two current proposals in the state legislature, referring to them as “one a challenge and one an opportunity.”
The challenge is Senate Bill 846, which could change Buncombe County’s status in regard to sales tax redistribution and ultimately could lead to a loss of $600,000 in FY2017 and a $1.4 million loss in revenue for FY 2018. SB 846 is currently in committee, and you can track it here.
The proposed legislation that could be an opportunity is Senate Bill 888, which could amend the way the county can structure debt, giving it the opportunity to take on more capital improvement projects for school systems. “It gives us capacity. … We can issue $225 million in debt and have the ability to manage it,” said Greene, adding that commissioners could influence its approval by contacting state lawmakers.
SB 888 is currently in the Committee on Education, and you can track its progress here.
You can view the county manager’s budget update in its entirety here.
The Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget during its next meeting on Tuesday, June 7. Commissioners have until July 1, the start of FY 2017, to approve a budget.