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.”