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Wednesday, 28 May 2014 13:32

Flat budget recommended for Macon schools

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As this year’s budget talks kicked off, Macon County Schools presented its petition for a $500,000 funding increase to pay for teacher raises and insurance increases, but County Manager Derek Roland’s proposed budget doesn’t include any of those extra dollars. He’s asking commissioners to fund the school system at $7.3 million, the same amount as last year. 

“We all understand that the high value we do place on education, that’s never going to change,” Roland said, “but during these times as we’re going into the revaluation and the uncertainties that are going to accompany that, we’re all going to have to work together and find a way to get through this thing.”

 

More costs, less money 

Next year, the county will begin calculating property tax based on newly evaluated property values, the first revaluation to take place since the recession hit and the real estate market tanked. To prepare, Roland has asked county departments to trim their budgets. 

He felt it would be impossible to honor the school system’s request while also furthering that goal. In addition to the $500,000 increase in operating expenses, the school district’s request included a capital expense increase of $1,031,415 over 2013-14. Those expenses were comprised of a list of 17 smaller projects — some of the bigger-ticket items were $181,000 to replace windows in the main building of Franklin High School and $114,000 for school furniture and equipment — and $430,000 for classroom technology. 

Roland recommended that commissioners keep capital funding at its current level of $99,000 and begin funding technology upgrades again once the county finishes paying off the loan it took out in 2012-13 to provide $1.5 million for school technology, in 2017-18.

“In choosing to fund the entire additional amount requested, a property tax increase of 1.7 cents per hundred would be required,” Roland wrote in his budget message. “A second option would be to appropriate the funds from available fund balance. 

“The first approach goes directly against the priority of no tax increase in FY 14’-15’ which has been set by the Macon County Board of Commissioners,” he continued. “The second option goes against a long-standing priority for Macon County of maintaining a fund balance at or above 25% (appropriating an additional $1,534,017 from fund balance would decrease fund balance to 24.87% in FY14’-15’). Furthermore, and more importantly, appropriating the funds from available fund balance is not a sustainable option.”

Roland’s budget is not final. County commissioners will consider it and vote on a final version one week after a June 10 public hearing. However, the county manager’s recommendation typically influences the final outcome. 

“We will take whatever the county commissioners will allocate to us and do the best we can with it,” Macon Schools Superintendent Chris Baldwin said. 

But regardless of whether the budget allows room for any capital projects this year, Baldwin said, the school system will need some extra cash to counter state cuts — between 2011-12 and 2013-14, state funding fell by more than $1 million — and accommodate state actions that require extra funding. Namely, teacher raises. 

Gov. Pat McCrory has a proposal out pushing for a 7.1 percent raise for all first- through seventh-year teachers and a 2 percent average raise for everyone else. While the state will foot the bill for any raises given to state-paid school employees, matching pay increases for employees hired with local dollars will have to come from those same local dollars. The state pays salaries for 195 Macon County teachers, while the county pays for the 37 additional teaching positions as well as 69 non-instructional positions. Pay increases for these employees will come to about $150,000.

 

Finding the money

Roland suggested that the school system compensate for that amount by dipping into the $430,000 that the county provides in addition to operating expenses to give teachers and instructors a 2 percent bonus, supplementing their state pay. 

“As a result, teachers and instructors would receive a 1 percent annual bonus, which is equivalent to the annual bonus given to county employees,” Roland wrote in his budget message. 

“In going through the county departments’ budget, every county department answered the question: what’s important now in terms of their immediate and future needs. What do we have to have today? What can serve us another couple years?” Roland said. “It’s really that attitude of what’s important now in terms of immediate needs and future needs. We’re just asking everyone to have that same attitude.”

Baldwin said that, if the budget is passed as recommended, he would do just that. Baldwin hopes to protect teacher supplements by leaving some vacant non-classroom positions open rather than rehiring them. Because nearby counties such as Jackson and Haywood have higher supplemental pay than Macon, he said, it’s important to keep that incentive there so good teachers stay in Macon County. 

“We as a school system cannot afford to allow our teacher supplement to go below what it is currently,” he said. “That means we’ll do all we can to preserve that supplement, but what that means is we’re going to lose additional positions.” 

But regardless of where the money comes from, Baldwin said, it will have to come from somewhere. The local or state-paid designation is mainly just a label slapped on for accounting purposes; employees don’t generally know which category their paycheck comes out of, and that category may change throughout the year. 

“We’ll move folks from locally paid to state-paid throughout the year based on changes such as whether or not they’ve received a master’s degree or things like that,” Baldwin said. 

State teacher funding is done by position, not dollar amount, so lower-paid beginning teachers are typically picked up with local funds. That set-up is part of the reason why the governor’s proposal, while good news for teachers, would cause some difficulty for local school districts if the legislature adopts it. Beginning teachers make the least amount of money, but they’re also slated for the biggest raise. Gov. McCrory hopes to bolster salaries for beginning teachers, none of whom have received any raise in the past six years, 7.1 percent in 2014-15 so that no teacher makes less than $33,000 and to raise that minimum to $35,000 the following year. 

Of course, nothing is certain. Counties and school districts are planning based on a proposal, not legislation, so the numbers can change overnight. In fact, just a couple weeks ago the school district was planning on a 3 percent increase for all school employees with more than seven years’ experience. Then, that number changed to 2 percent. 

The decrease shaves about $30,000 off the district’s original estimated need, but it’s also an example of the challenge of planning for a money-tight situation where nothing is certain. With dollars and energy focused on accommodating pay hikes, there’s not much left over to address needs such as textbooks, barely any of which have been replaced in the last decade. 

“If we want to move forward and be progressive, that’s almost out of reach,” Baldwin said. “We’re just looking to hold steady at this point.”

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