County approves massive investment in early ed despite fiscal concerns

A SUPER INVESTMENT: The Rev. Amy Cantrell and kids from BeLoved Asheville’s Kids Justice League show their support for a resolution passed by the Board of Commissioners on Oct. 30 that commits Buncombe County to a significant investment in early childhood education. Photo by David Floyd

Over the protests of Republicans, who expressed concern that the allotment would place too large a burden on taxpayers, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved a multimillion dollar investment in early childhood education on Oct. 30.

Starting in fiscal year 2020, the county will annually budget $3.6 million for investments in early education. The baseline $3.6-million appropriation will increase 2 percent per year. The money will be allocated to community organizations by the Board of Commissioners.

Commissioner Joe Belcher said every board member has a soft spot for early childhood education. “I’m just not in support of earmarking 1 percent in a future budget when you look at … all the other needs,” he said. “There’s just so many.”

In a 6-1 split, with Commissioner Mike Fryar casting the dissenting vote, Belcher and Commissioner Robert Pressley reluctantly voted to approve the funding.

“There’s nobody going to support early childcare as much as me,” Pressley said. Having cared for his grandkids, Pressley said he’s noticed the disparity between kids who have access to childcare at an early age and those who don’t. “My granddaughter started school, and she is so far ahead of the first-graders she’s with,” he said. “And what that comes down to is, if these kids had early childcare, she would not be so far ahead. She’d be right there with them.”

Although he said he’s a major proponent of early childhood education, Pressley said it would have been ideal for the board to reach a compromise to lessen the impact on the county budget. “This is going to be a big burden on the taxpayer,” he said.

Belcher suggested that commissioners reduce the allotment to $1 million while retaining the 2 percent annual funding increase. “If you will do that, then tonight we can lock arms in a 7-0 vote with a $1 million investment, which has never been done in Buncombe County,” he said, “and maybe we’ll end up increasing it substantially. But it gives us an opportunity to start.”

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara said she could not support that change. “Frankly, $3.6 million is not enough,” she said. “But $3.6 million is enough to move the needle in significant and systemic ways.”

Taking into account a $200,000 funding appropriation approved for the Children and Friends Enrichment Center earlier in the meeting ($79,000 of which will be paid for using savings on other projects), Buncombe County’s FY 2019 investment in early childhood education is about $950,000.

Hypothetically, Beach-Ferrara said, a $3.6 million addition to the budget would represent an approximately $25 increase on the tax bill of the average taxpayer in Buncombe County. “The answer is not nickel-and-diming it, the answer is not investments only when there’s a crisis,” she said. “The answer is significant, permanent investments.”

The funding for childhood education in the FY 2019 budget is just a Band-Aid, said Commissioner Ellen Frost. “Our kids deserve more than a Band-Aid,” she said. “So as much as I enjoy our votes of togetherness and locking arms, I can’t accept that, because to me it doesn’t show what we hold in our kids.”

During public comment before the commissioners’ discussion, several leaders of local organizations expressed support for the resolution.

Jim Barrett, the executive director of Pisgah Legal Services, said his organization has missed out on employees it was trying to hire from other counties because the prospective workers could not find childcare.

Without reliable access to childcare, Barrett said, parents have difficulty dividing their time between work and home. It’s also an economic development issue in that it can keep parents from going back to school or advancing their careers, he said.

Local officials, he said, have put in a lot of effort to narrow the achievement gap between children from low-income households and those who come from more affluent families. “One of the things we’ve got to try now is early childhood education,” he said. “The science is behind that; it will make a difference; it’s a great investment.”

Referencing concern over a potential $5.4 million shortfall in the FY 2020 budget and revelations that the county has used money set aside for A-B Tech capital projects to balance its budget, Fryar questioned the size of the proposed investment in early childhood education. “We’re looking at $3.6 million that we don’t have,” he said. “So do you think that me, I’m going to ask the taxpayer for a penny in taxes to do this?” (During the planning period for the FY 2019 budget, former County Manager Mandy Stone said a one-penny adjustment in the property tax rate equals roughly $3.7 million in county revenue.)

Fryar said he would support some funding for early childhood education and expressed support for Belcher’s $1-million alternative, but said $3.6 million was too much. “I want to support the children,” he said, “but I want the families to support them first.”

Drawing from numbers provided by NC Child, a group that compiles data on the well-being of children across the state, 46 percent of children in Buncombe County lived in poverty or in low-income families in 2016. In 2015, about 22 percent lived in food-insecure households. Supporters of the funding believe robust early childhood education programs could help offset the negative impact of economic disadvantages.

“If we are going to move this process forward,” said Board Chair Brownie Newman, “the investment has to be a significant enough increase that we really are able to scale some things up to make a real difference.”

Even a $3.6-million investment falls short of ideal, Newman said, but he’s hopeful that the county’s commitment will spur investment from the private sector. Echoing a hope Belcher had expressed earlier in the meeting, Newman said a potential partner could be the Dogwood Health Trust, the foundation that will be created to receive the proceeds of a sale of nonprofit Mission Health to HCA Healthcare if N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein approves the transaction.

“We always have tough budget choices to make,” Newman said. “But we should make this commitment first, because it does go to the core of what I think our responsibilities are.”

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About David Floyd
David Floyd is the Buncombe County reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press. Email him at dfloyd@mountainx.com.

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11 thoughts on “County approves massive investment in early ed despite fiscal concerns

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    How much do the parents have to pay for this new babysitting? Citizens who expect to remain in poverty should NEVER have children.

    • Lulz

      County cronies committed fraud by taking money VOTED for AB Tech and diverting it to the general fund. The whole system is corrupt and those at the top need to be criminally investigated. People should think about that. They got lied to.

  2. Lulz

    I take it these cronies will be giving back their county pay to supplement their foolish votes?

  3. Enlightened Enigma

    Pressley caved because of the current election… When is Brownie Newman resigning for the good of the county?

  4. Angela

    We can’t afford stupid anymore. Another example of why we should have term limits on Buncombe County Commission. Thank you, Mike Fryar for voting NO and standing up for the taxpayers. We are going to be paying huge salaries to the administrators of the non-profits so non-working parents can send their child to day care.

  5. jason

    Combine Buncombe County and Asheville City Schools NOW!

    I’m tired of paying for peoples daycare. I’m tired of paying for people who can’t afford children. I’m tired of supporting people who make bad decisions their entire lives. I’m just sick and tired of all of this!

  6. Mike

    Multiple studies have shown that any academic benefits of programs such as head start and Pre-K disappear before the kid reaches Middle School.

      • Lulz

        LOL so open borders crossers can come here and have more goodies. But in reality those poor ghetto folks are the ones losing out.

        Again, theaw morons are already talking tax increases when all they’ve done is mishandled the money already given to them. Nothing changes until they are replaced with others looking out for taxpayers. Not taxtakers.

        • luther blissett

          “LOL so open borders crossers can come here and have more goodies.”

          LOL no.

          The public line from cranky old conservatives is “come in legally and assimilate”, and early childhood education is a very good way to accelerate that process for children who grow up in dual-language households. But cranky old conservatives really just hate legal immigrants, non-white US citizen children and people who speak other languages.

          But they’re so pro-life. They love the children so much. Sure they do.

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