Haywood lends helping hand to schools, but not enough to make up the gap

Haywood County commissioners have increased funding to the county school system this year for the first time in four years, but with cuts in state and federal funding, the boost from the county won’t be enough to help plug the schools’ budget hole.

The county is chipping in an extra $350,000 toward in the operating budget for Haywood County’s elementary, middle and high schools.

But, the school system will see an almost $400,000 cut in state money, the loss of $1.7 million in emergency federal funding extended to schools during the recession, and a reduction in lottery money for building maintenance and construction, said Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte.

“We are starting a couple million in the hole,” Nolte said, adding that schools are grateful for the money from the county.

Haywood County schools will receive $14.3 million next year for operating expenses and $256,000 for capital projects. The county slashed the capital budget for school maintenance four years ago by two-thirds, and has yet to restore it. Schools have a troubling backlog of repairs as a result.

The school system presented a nearly $900,000 wish list for capital projects, listing several critical items including a new school bus and roof repairs at its meeting with commissioners more than a week ago.

Instead, commissioners decided to direct their increase in school funding to operational costs for the schools.

“You will see a little bump,” said County Manager Marty Stamey. “I wish we could do more at this time.”

The increase is designed to get the county back on track with a funding formula that had fallen by the wayside during the recession.

“We were able to go by the formula until the economy went over the cliff,” said Board Chairman Mark Swanger.

About eight years ago, the county brokered a deal with the school system designed to curb what had become an annual fight over how much money the county would pony up.

“It seemed like there was always a fight,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, adding that talks are more agreeable since both parties approved the formula.

Under the deal, the county would use a formula based on student population to determine school funding each year. The formula also built in a 1 percent increase year to year. But, it has been frozen for the past four years.

As the economic prospects have started looking a bit sunnier, officials were grateful for the help from commissioners.

“We would be pleased to be back on the formula,” Nolte said. “The economy is still not recovered so if they have the revenue to put us back on the formula negotiated several years ago, we would view that as very positive and be every thankful for that.”

Unlike the county school system, Haywood Community College did not ask commissioners to increase its operating budget this year but requested that the board would allocate any additional funding to capital projects, such as road repairs and building renovations.

HCC presented the board with more than $2.6 million worth of capital projects at a recent budget meeting on its ultimate wish list, but only asked for $500,000.

“They commented that they knew that that could not be funded, but they wanted to make use aware of what those needs are,” Swanger said.

In the proposed budget, the county will allocate $176,000 to HCC’s capital projects — an increase of $56,000.

Besides the schools, other department’s budgets remained relatively on par with this year’s numbers.

(Reporter Becky Johnson contributed to this story.)

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