By third grade, North Carolina students are supposed to have mastered the principles of multiplication and comparing numbers. Those students could thus understand the problem local schools posed to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners at a May 7 special meeting.
While the county’s current proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 includes nearly $3.6 million in new education funding, the total new requests presented by A-B Tech, Asheville City and Buncombe County schools came to roughly $8.16 million — well over twice the county’s plan. That figure includes $1.06 million more for A-B Tech, $2.09 million for the city schools and $5.01 million in increased funding for the county system.
A-B Tech, said President Dennis King, expects to have spent over $1.2 million of its cash reserves by the end of June, leaving the institution with only an estimated $70,000 on hand. The college requires more county support for ongoing maintenance and operations, he explained, including $437,000 in phone bills the General Assembly recently decided will no longer be the state’s responsibility.
Tony Baldwin, superintendent for Buncombe County Schools, said recurring personnel costs were his system’s greatest need. State-proposed pay increases of 5% for certified employees and 3% for noncertified employees, as well as higher retirement and health insurance contributions, totaled nearly $3.72 million. While the General Assembly hasn’t yet passed its final budget for the next fiscal year, he added, projected “diminished” funding levels would require over $728,000 in extra local money to keep 20 instructional assistants.
“This is not just unique to Buncombe County; you’re seeing this across the state,” Baldwin said. “In some of the eastern systems, assistants have been eliminated.”
Baldwin also asked for $567,000 in new funding to pay for seven behavioral support specialists. “If I brought every one of our principals in this room and I asked them what is the No. 1 concern that they have, the most significant need, they’re going to come to you with behavioral health,” he said.
Asheville City Schools sought money for mental health support as well, with a request of $515,000. Other major items, explained Superintendent Denise Patterson, included $280,000 for four core subject teachers at the Montford North Star Academy and $225,000 for two teachers and two assistants at Asheville Primary School.
However, Patterson provided less detail about the school system’s requests for capital expenditures. Her presentation included no numbers in association with “critical” projects such as a hot water system at Asheville Primary, elevator replacement at Vance Elementary School and wall repairs at Claxton Elementary School. In response to a question from Commissioner Joe Belcher, she confirmed that none of those projects were included in the proposed $2.09 million funding increase.
Both Patterson and Baldwin noted that public schools are experiencing declines in enrollment due to the increased popularity of home schooling, charter schools and private education. “We have to advertise and sell ourselves and market ourselves,” said Patterson. “Our team will be meeting to consider what other efforts we can do to retain our students.”
Commissioner Al Whitesides encouraged Patterson to step up her efforts on student retention, as well as the system’s worst-in-state racial academic achievement disparities. “If we keep going the way we’re going, 10 years, 15 years [from now], we may not have Asheville City Schools,” he said.