Schools got only a brief and passing mention by Haywood County commissioners during a brainstorming session last week on priorities for the coming year.
Education came up near the end of a free-wheeling 90-minute discussion, with only two to three minutes spent on the topic.
County commissioners later said that education is top priority, however, and its short and late mention in their discussion is no indication of the importance they ascribe to it.
“With this board, schools have been at the top,” said Commissioner Bill Upton, former superintendent of the school system who was a career educator.
Commissioners said their commitment to the schools goes without saying — literally — thus they really didn’t need to say very much about it.
“That’s a matter that we know every year is at the top of our to-do list. It is just always a priority,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “It is just a given.”
Of the five commissioners, three have been leaders in the school system. Upton as superintendent, principal and teacher; Swanger as school board chairman; and Sorrells as a former school board member.
Sorrells agreed that schools are “a given.”
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“Boom — that is part of the budget,” said Sorrells. “Historically, Haywood County has always, always supported education, and I feel like our board is still very much in tune to that.”
Sorrells was the one who brought up education in the 11th hour of the priority-setting budget discussion. He realized education hadn’t been mentioned yet and didn’t want the meeting to slip by without at least some acknowledgement that schools would be attended to.
“Albeit it come up at the end, but it come up,” Sorrells said.
The school system has been saddled with funding cuts at both the state and county level. Haywood County Schools has lost 129 positions and $8 million compared to its pre-recession days.
Meanwhile, commissioners have pledged not to raise taxes, so the prospect of more school funding could be slim, even though commissioners said philosophically they wish they could restore cuts to the school’s budget.
“But how in this economy when people are struggling do you come up with that extra money?” Sorrells asked. “I am torn between that. It is a Catch 22 for me.”
Chuck Francis, chairman of the Haywood County school board, said he empathizes with commissioners who are still handcuffed by the economic realities of the time. However, Francis hopes lost funding can be restored, as cuts are starting to take their toll.
“We’ve got a great school system here, and we need to protect it,” said Francis. “It is a selling point for the county. If we lose a good school system, people don’t want to move here. They won’t want to work here.”
Top of the list?
With Haywood commissioners pledging not to raise property taxes, it leaves little wiggle room in next year’s budget. No new money coming in means no new money to go around.
There may be a little extra money — little being the operative word — if an uptick in spending stays on track to bring in more sales tax this year compared to last. A modest number of new houses and businesses being added to county tax rolls will also bring in a little more property tax.
The debate will likely come down to who — or what — will get first dibs on that little bit of extra money.
“I don’t know yet. I think we are still a little bit early,” Swanger said.
The majority of commissioners have indicated cost-of-living raises for county employees may top the list if there is any money to go around.
“One thing we will look at is county employees — the 501 county employees who haven’t gotten a raise,” Upton said.
County employees have not gotten an across-the-board cost of living increase in five years.
“Our employees have sacrificed a lot, being asked to do more with less and getting paid less as gas and other things are going up. I would like to see us help our employees some if at all possible,” Swanger said during budget discussions last week.
The county has awarded merit raises to particularly deserving employees, those who have taken on additional responsibilities or proven particularly exceptional.
“They realize we do have some real high performers and people are doing more,” County Manager Marty Stamey said.
Teachers would probably like to see pay raises too, but haven’t seen one in four years.
“Of course, the teachers’ pay scale from the state has been frozen,” Francis said.
In Haywood County, school teachers get a local bonus — 4.5 percent of the base salary from the state. These supplements are supposed to attract better teachers. While higher than many counties its size, Haywood’s teacher salary supplement is still lower than most of the state’s more urban counties — and lower than Buncombe and Asheville.
Haywood County commissioners and the school board pledged to work together to increase the local bonus a little each year until Haywood County caught up. That plan was sidelined with the recession, however.
Morally, it would be difficult to lay off even more people to afford raises for everyone else, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said.
“As far as I am concerned, how in the world can we increase the supplement when we have lost 129 employees,” said Nolte, citing the toll on the workforce in Haywood’s school system since 2008.
The county likewise has laid-off staff — more than 50 positions have been cut in four years.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said giving employees raises is an admirable goal, but he pointed out that in this economy, jobs are hard to come by, and there are always plenty of applicants for any open position the county has had.
Still, with the majority of commissioners reflecting a desire to give employees raises with the little bit of extra money in its coffers, the best-case scenario for the schools may simply be no more cuts.
“We all want to keep it at least where it is,” Upton said. “I am thinking our mindset is we just want to maintain. Maintain — that is the big thing from our budget session.”
Sorrells agreed the schools, like everyone in county government, will likely be hearing the “do more with less” refrain again this year.
“That has been our theme in the county, and we are going to be in that mode for a little while,” Sorrells said.
In the meantime, commissioners are pinning their hopes on consumer spending to increase sales tax revenues. The more it goes up, the more additional money they have to spread around.
A cut of the state sales tax flows back to counties. In the last quarter of 2011, Haywood County saw a slight uptick compared to the same quarter of 2010 — an extra $65,000. It’s hardly enough to pay for raises for all 501 county employees and still have some left over for the schools.
But, Stamey hopes the trend will continue through the next six months.
“The key is sales tax,” Stamey said. “That is the key one we are monitoring closely.”
Schools get most of their budget from the state, which pays the lion’s share of teacher salaries. Counties foot the bill to construct and maintain school buildings. That’s the simple version anyway.
Counties also contribute to varying degrees for additional positions, from teachers to extra teacher’s assistants to school secretaries to janitors. Counties also pay for incidentals like activity buses used for field trips.
Haywood County chips in a larger contribution per pupil than many counties its size, and that commitment hasn’t changed, Commissioner Mark Swanger said, despite the belated shout out schools got in the budget priority discussion.
“All you can say is you want to fund education,” Swanger said. “We didn’t get into dollars on anything because we just aren’t there yet.”
Plus, the county isn’t entirely sure what the schools will be asking for yet. County and school officials are meeting next Monday to talk money. The annual budget pow-wow is essentially a chance for the school system to make its pitch.
“We’ll make sure going into this budget process they are aware of what our needs are,” Francis said. “They just need to be brought up to speed where we are.”
The school has to be strategic in its request. Ask for the moon, and the county will have a hard time discerning what is indeed a dire need. Ask for too little, the county will see the schools as being in relatively good shape.
Both the school and county officials went out of their way to stress what a great relationship they have.
“I don’t know if it is anybody’s fault, the state or the commissioners or anybody else’s,” said Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte. “I think the commissioners empathize with us here.”
Likewise, the school board empathizes with commissioners.
“We understand the funding situation they are under,” Francis said.