Due to COVID-19, the Buncombe County school district is sending its budget into the red. As Superintendent Tony Baldwin explained to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners during a May 19 pre-meeting, the system’s pandemic response has completely exhausted its $4.6 million rainy day fund — and the schools now project a $2.1 million deficit by the end of the fiscal year.
“Our fund balance, as is yours, is there for emergency purposes,” Baldwin said. “This has been, certainly from my career standpoint, the greatest emergency that we’ve seen.”
Baldwin’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget request to the commissioners did not include additional money to fill that hole. Instead, he said the schools had identified $2.1 million in unspecified “cost strategies” that would be used to replenish the fund balance. Baldwin did ask for roughly $1.49 million above last year’s county allocation of $68.22 million, a boost of about 2.2%, to cover increases in employee health care and retirement costs.
The superintendent also anticipated aid from the federal government but said Buncombe had yet to see any of that money. “We’re so anxious to see the Marines hit the beach, or the cavalry come in on the white horses, with those federal funds, because we’re going to be highly dependent on them,” Baldwin said.
(On May 21, the N.C. State Board of Education announced its plans to distribute $396 million in federal COVID-19 funds during an emergency meeting. Buncombe County Schools will receive roughly $5.66 million, while Asheville City Schools will receive nearly $878,000.)
Bobbie Short, interim superintendent of Asheville City Schools, said her organization also regarded COVID-19 as its “greatest present challenge.” While she did not expect ACS to completely spend its reserves, she noted that the system anticipates using $1.6 million of its fund balance to support operations next fiscal year. Last year, ACS appropriated $3.3 million in general fund balance from a total reserve of $6.5 million.
For fiscal 2020-21, Short requested an additional $1.17 million over the county’s $26.11 million allocation for the current fiscal year, an increase of about 4.5%. The bulk of that money, as with the Buncombe system, would go toward employee health care and retirement. However, nearly $196,000 would be used to bolster the salaries of 99 teacher assistants, who currently make between $21,000 and $28,000 annually.
Short noted that the move was recommended as part of a recent salary study that also advised raises for school custodians, maintenance, clerical and nutrition staff; those increases would be phased in over the next three years. She pointed to Asheville’s high cost of living compared with that of other North Carolina cities as the main reason behind the need for higher pay.
“When you talk about the opportunity gap, it focuses on our own employees,” Short said, noting that housing in the city costs nearly 51% more than comparable housing in Winston-Salem and nearly 32% more than in Durham. “How can we expect anyone to live in Asheville when you make $21,000 a year?”
At the end of Short’s presentation, incoming Superintendent Gene Freeman, who will take over on Monday, June 1, offered a potential spot of hope for a future ACS budget. If the schools did not see “substantial improvement” over the five years he plans to spend with the system, Freeman said, “I’ll write you a check for my last year’s salary.” His contract with ACS sets a base salary of $150,000 per year.
“We’re going to hold you to that,” remarked Commissioner Al Whitesides.
Updated at 11:58 p.m. on May 25 to include information on federal COVID-19 emergency funding.