On a November morning, my colleagues in Swain County High School’s library surprised our students by filling every table with plates of fresh cookies accompanied by cups of warm, spiced cider. As students entered from the bus lobby, they stopped and looked at the spread in front of them. One student, with disbelief in his voice, spoke for those around him when he said, “Is this all for us?”
According to Feeding America (feedingamerica.org), 2,500 people of Swain County’s 14,000 don’t know the source of their next meal, and around 30 perent of our children don’t eat three meals a day. Out of 100 counties in North Carolina, Swain is ninety-seventh in terms of food insecurity. This could help explain why our students appreciate the extras, such as our offerings of warm food on a cold morning, tutoring before a final exam, or assistance with a college application. However, all of these are limited by our poverty.
Our county’s school system has lost funding for the last few years, as have other public schools, all on the axe-happy state legislature’s chopping block. The most recent cuts required desperately creative thinking from our administrators. At Swain High, this resulted in converting several full-time teaching positions to part-time, or simply eliminating positions altogether as teachers retired.
The effect on our classrooms is crowding, classroom management issues, time issues regarding grading, less attention to individual students, and teacher fatigue. The effect on our students is less time to talk with a teacher, less time for class discussions, less time to create a bond with a responsible and caring adult (sometimes the only responsible and caring adult in the picture), and less attention to specifics.
The overall effect is that students lose, and the students we teach in Swain County are among the neediest in North Carolina. The reasons for losing funding are many, but that is not what this is about. What this is about is that other counties in our low wealth, “Tier 1” designation receive funds to help them compensate for their lack of income from other sources. Swain County, however, receives only a pittance.
Much has recently been said about North Carolina’s complicated and unfair school funding formula, including the report presented to the state legislature on December 12 by the nonpartisan Program Evaluation Division. Their report indicates that the formula for public school budgets is so complex (it includes 37 different categories) and so unfair that change is essential. I am in complete agreement that change is required. As I said, I am a teacher. I grew up in this county, and I know my students’ poverty. I have a dog in the fight.
Swain, like many of North Carolina’s counties, is an economically dramatic mix of haves and have-nots. Homes in the county range in value from $10,000 to over $700,000, with more than a third of those being second homes. Our property tax, one of the lowest in the state, represents only 37 percent of our budget, as opposed to the state average of 60 percent. Swain County’s finance administration explains that it does not raise property taxes because, while second-home owners could afford the increase, most local people who live here year round are already stretched to the limit just to buy groceries and pay monthly bills. With our median income $10,000 less than the state average, we have little in common with North Carolina’s middle class.
Because our commissioners tax at a lower rate, can only tax a small portion of Swain County’s property, but still have to pay for all the services more prosperous counties provide, it can only designate about 12 percent of its budget for the schools. Hence, we have the lowest funding per student of any county in the state. Again, according to Swain’s finance administration, “If there were more [taxable] property, there would be more revenue, and [it] could be appropriated for needed services without placing a burden on the residents.” And therein lies Swain County’s “Catch 22.”
North Carolina’s school funding system exacerbates our children’s poverty. The way North Carolina has set up its formula creates great inequities for many counties, but Swain County is alone in its low property tax base. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nantahala National Forest, Qualla Boundary (Cherokee Reservation), and other non-taxable land (e.g., churches, government buildings, etc.), reduce Swain County’s actual tax base to around 13 percent of its land mass. Taxable property in other North Carolina counties ranges from 50 to 80 percent.
Because Swain County is one of 68 counties considered “low wealth,” it should qualify for “Low Wealth Supplemental Funding,” which would provide around an extra $280 per child. However, Swain County is an anomaly. Our demographics, our actual income, our tax base (Swain County’s median income includes its Cherokee residents’ per capita funds, but their Qualla Boundary properties are not taxable), combined with our child poverty and hunger rates, make us unlike any other North Carolina county.
Specifically, the extra $280 could be spent to hire additional teachers and lessen the burden on our crowded classrooms; to take students who have not been out of Western North Carolina on a field trip to a museum without having to seek outside funding; to allow teachers to purchase books to replace worn ones without spending our own money; and to add to our emergency funds for students who come to school without access to laundry, to warm clothing, to hot water, or to food.
However, because the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction have determined that Swain County only provides 24.6 percent of what it “could contribute based on the county’s wealth and an average state effort,” Swain County is only “eligible for 24.6 percent of their appropriation.” That is, the county receives $70 per child from the state, about $210 less than counties with similar low wealth.
In the 2014 “Local School Finance Study,” The Public School Forum of North Carolina described “the large and persistent resource gap” between the “highest wealth county in the state (Orange County, at $4,145 per child) and the lowest wealth counties (with Swain County at the very bottom, at $384 per child).” According to this study, as well as an oversight report to the General Assembly on November 14 of this year, the primary issues are “inequities in North Carolina between low-wealth and affluent counties, inadequate resources for districts with large populations of children with disabilities, ‘illogical and uneven’ funding for students with limited English proficiency and many more issues as reasons for reform.”
The bottom line is this: when the playing field is uneven, it is always the most vulnerable who lose. Swain County schools do everything we can with what we have, but what we have is simply not enough to give our children the resources they deserve in order to compete, much less to win.
(Dawn Gilchrist teaches high school English in Swain County.)