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Wednesday, 04 May 2011 19:19

Haywood schools bracing for deep state budget cuts

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The state’s bloodletting has begun, and for Haywood County Schools, the losses might add up to more than $4 million siphoned off next year’s budget.

School officials have been steadily crunching numbers since the state House of Representatives offered a look into its proposed budget this month, and their calculations paint a fairly grim picture for some of the system’s programs.

Line-item cuts from the state that target specific budget items range from a 5 percent reduction in transportation funding to 100 percent pulled from things like dropout prevention, school technology and staff development.

Those cuts, trimming from 17 categories, total $2.4 million and mean a loss of 46 positions, many of them teacher assistants.

Then there’s the $1.6 million more in “discretionary reversion,” which means that the school system can work out on its own where that money has to be saved, but it’s got to somehow.

Altogether, the proposed House budget would cut 13 percent from the school system’s budget.

Meanwhile, courtesy of another state mandate that governs how much the school system pays into its employees’ retirement and health benefits, they’ll have to spend an extra $138,403 to cover those expenses. And since the percentages they pay into those funds are set by the state every year, they’re stuck with those increased costs.

There are other increases, too, that the school system has identified as needs, but they’re realistic about the likelihood of getting them. From a guidance counselor for Haywood Early College to two school nurse positions to rotate among the schools, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte is careful to say that they’re not just wants, but things the system might need to fund from somewhere.

“We may have to, or lose programs or even lose accreditation,” said Nolte.

In addition to the jump in operating expenses, school officials have found around $1.6 million in capital improvements that will need attention sometime soon. Some of those, like window tinting and new blinds, aren’t particularly urgent.

Some, like exit doors stuck shut by warped sidewalks, can’t wait.  

All this at a time when the county, too, is looking at its budget, trying to trim fat in anticipation of its own cuts from the state.

It would seem, then, that the schools are in a predicament. And that is the pitch education officials gave to county commissioners this week when they met to float their potential budget and test the waters on what kind of support they’d be getting from commissioners this year.

Though they didn’t pin down an exact percent increase on what they got last year, they’re looking to commissioners to at least stick to the funding formula they’ve been using for the last few years, and any extra on those capital projects and operating increases they could scrape up wouldn’t hurt, either.

They’re not looking for any help, though, in making up the difference cut by the state because, said Nolte, they’re well aware that more cash from the county just isn’t there.

“I don’t think we can, in good conscience, expect the commissioners to come up with revenue that they don’t have,” said Nolte. “It’s impractical, in my professional opinion, to say to our county commissioners, ‘Hey, the state cut all of this; fund it.’ There is a worldwide economic crisis, and to our knowledge, our commissioners do not have new revenues that would make up for any state cuts to any agencies.”

But with finances tight on every front, what they’re asking might still be too much.

“If we fund you at your requested level, that would be a 1.5 cent increase on the tax rate. That’s what you’re asking us to do,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the board’s lone Republican. Ensley told school officials that, while he understood their problems, he was committed to a revenue-neutral budget, which would be a hard feat to accomplish while doling out extra money.

When asked what they would do if the county couldn’t fund them with any extra dollars, Superintendent Anne Garrett said they’d make do.

“Well, we would have to make it work because we wouldn’t have a choice,” said Garrett.

But even if the county does pony up for as much as the school needs, it will still mean some pretty painful slashing next year.

Last year, of the school system’s $72.5 million budget, the state picked up the tab for 62 percent of it. They’ve been reducing funding pretty steadily since recession came into full bloom in 2009; the system has lost $5.2 million since that year.

But this year, they will, at one time, be losing 77 percent of what they’ve lost in the past three years combined.

In terms of real jobs, the biggest hits are coming for teacher assistants. A whopping 49 percent of state funding for those positions is going right out the window, which translates to 32 assistants.

While the state suggests that every class through the third grade have a dedicated assistant, Haywood County can’t reach that threshold with the resources it has now. Apparently, no one can, according to school officials.

Right now, they’ve got assistants in all the kindergarten and first-grade classes, with a few rotating in second and third grades. If the House cuts go through, that would whittle that number significantly, essentially down to just the kindergarten aides.

Nolte said they would probably be able to stave off that particular carnage thanks to some forward planning last year. They got a slice of a federal money pie called EduJobs and then promptly squirreled it away for just such an occasion. They can now dip into it to fund some positions in the coming year.

Here’s the problem with that, though: it’s only enough to fill in that gap for one year. And depending on the state of the financial world this time next year, they could be back in the same place.

“Basically, what we’re doing is trying to do one more year and hope it comes back,” said Commissioner Michael Sorrells.

In other places, though, they don’t have the caches to shore up the gaping funding holes the state might leave.

Some school bus replacements will have to be put on hold and dropout prevention, staff development and several other programs will be scuttled altogether.

One pretty high number on the House cuts list is the 68 percent of textbook funding they’d pull. But, said Nolte, that’s not the big hit that it seems, as Haywood schools have been moving away from textbook reliance for a while now.

It makes sense — in a digital world, it’s unlikely that the classroom will be the only bastion of traditional paper texts. It helped their test scores, said Nolte, and now it’s helping their bottom line, too.

If the Senate’s budget is anything like the austerity of the House’s, school officials said that next year will be tough. But they’ve been preparing for this situation since 2009, having been forewarned by economists and government sources alike that the upcoming school year would be the nadir of the crisis for public finances. It’ll be rough, but they can probably ride it out.

There are a few stashes here and there that the school system could raid if things got dire, their yearly lottery payout being the fattest. But with 16 schools and even more offices, Nolte said they’re protecting that money to use for maintaining the buildings and grounds, since all the other pools that once paid for those improvements are drying up.

“We have 1.47 million square feet under roof, and it just takes some revenue to fix the pipes and the valves that start to leak and the roofs that wear out,” said Nolte.

Plus, he said, that final pot may soon be gone, too, diverted to other state needs. Two years ago, the school stopped getting ADM funding, which gave them money based on their schools’ pupil population.

“The lottery is being seriously eyed by the legislature,” said Nolte.

Really, though, what he’s concerned about is what comes next if things don’t get better. There comes a point where only so much that can be cut, and he worries that they’re on the express train to it.

“At some point in time, there’s going to be a straw or two that breaks the camel’s back. There’s really not a lot of cushion left there,” said Nolte. “We’ve lost over 50 positions in the last three years and we’ve tried to spread those, but at some point in time, there’ll be a saturation point.”

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