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Macon Schools may cut teacher bonuses to save positions

To deal with a gaping budget shortfall, Macon County Schools might raid the local salary bonus it historically awards its teachers. 


While the state pays the base salary for teachers, local school districts often sweeten the pot by augmenting the state-paid salaries with a supplement. Macon teachers get a 2 percent supplement given out in a lump sum at Christmas. But with the school struggling to meet ends meet this year, the more than $400,000 fund for supplements is looking pretty tempting.

“To be honest the teachers that I’ve spoken with really appreciate that 2 percent supplement,” said Superintendant Chris Baldwin. “But at the same time, if it means keeping a teacher in a classroom, they say ‘take our supplement.’”

The school system will definitely have fewer teachers in light of a $1 million plus budget shortfall, but dipping into supplements for salaries could save more positions.

This spring, Macon County commissioners gave the school board the green light to shuffle around its locally-appropriated budget, taking money from some areas and shifting it to others. Teacher supplements is one of those areas, and possibly the biggest chunk of change the school district can tap into.

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But even after giving the nod of approval to use the teachers supplements for operating costs, if need be, Macon County Chairman Kevin Corbin hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I really hope they don’t mess with the teacher bonuses,” Corbin said. “I think they need to leave that in place — that’s part of the teacher compensation package.”

But Baldwin has said that his priorities this year are keeping classrooms staffed with teachers and trying to grow the school’s fund balance again. After being at more than $3 million several years ago, the school district has spent its cash reserves down to nothing to offset reductions in state and federal funding.

The county will get $500,000 less in state funding this year compared to last year, and that has caught the district by surprise.

“This definitely puts that 2 percent supplement in jeopardy,” Baldwin said. “It’s going to be especially difficult for the school system to withstand that.”

The matter is still up in the air. It may come down to the simple question of which is better, more teachers making less or less teachers making more?

The conundrum pits the teachers’ dedication to education against their own self interest.

“A lot of the teachers would like to see us have more teachers,” said Board of Education vice chairman Tommy Cabe, whose wife is a teacher. “They’re going to teach no matter how much money they got or how many kids they got.”

However, the thought of saving the job of co-workers doesn’t make the possibility of another year of less-than-hoped-for compensation any easier to swallow. John deVille, a high school teacher in Franklin, said this year has been particularly bad for teachers and the loss of the supplement just adds to that.

The state has moved to do away with extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees and eliminate the tenure-type program for veteran educators. DeVille added that he has only received a pay raise, of 2 percent, once in the last five years. Losing the 2 percent supplement amounts to a pay decrease.

“It’s a pay cut,” deVille said.

However, the alternative is less desirable.

“If there is a choice between me getting a 1 and 2 percent supplement versus extra teachers or teachers assistants, you would find 99 percent of teachers support funding the extra positions,” deVille said. “That’s somebody’s livelihood.”

Most school districts offer a salary supplement  — ranging between a couple percentage points to more than 10 percent of the state’s base salary. Only a handful of districts in the state don’t offer any additional pay, said Mark Jewell, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators. Swain County is one that doesn’t offer a supplement.

As state salaries for teachers have come to rank amongst the lowest in the country — $30,800 for a first-year teacher — local governments are left picking up the slack. But it can be especially hard for poorer districts to make up the difference and offer teachers a competitive wage.

Not doing so can send the wrong message, Jewell said.

“This is what we value for our local school teachers,” he said. “Teachers are having a hard enough time as it is making ends meet.”


A downhill spiral

Macon County Schools came face to face with a looming budget crisis earlier this year to the tune of $1.9 million.

The school board and administrators went hat in hand to the Macon County commissioners and pled for a funding increase — a bail out of sorts. At first, their $1.9 million request was met with an additional $230,000 from the county, a paltry increase of 3 percent over what it gave the schools last year. 

But the school board and administrators convinced commissioners to do more, and Macon County offered another $200,000 at the last minute before passing the budget at the end of June. The county gave the school system $6.9 million last year and will give it about $7.3 million this year.

“I wish we could basically afford to give them more but we’re in a very tight budget year and so are they,” said Commissioner Jimmy Tate of Highlands. “The county was left with helping them pick up the tab.”

For the county, the school budget was just one more item on a long list of funding priorities.

Commissioners approved several high-profile spending projects this year, including a $550,000 pool renovation, nearly $400,000 in new medical equipment for emergency responders, and $1 million toward the purchase of land for a new baseball complex near Franklin and soccer fields in Highlands. 

Commissioners also passed a slew of pay raises for county workers which will cost the county an additional $750,000 in salaries each year.

They will also have to decide soon on a quarter-million dollar project to widen the airport runway.

Commissioner Ron Haven voted against most of the county’s big ticket spending items over the past year. He also voted against the final budget, which included the increases in education funding. However, he said he would have rather put all the money spent on things like across-the-board county employee raises and vacant land on education instead.

“We got to live by our means,” Haven said. “But if we started snipping the things that weren’t important that we’re spending money on, the things that are important wouldn’t be a problem.”


Cuts piling up

Few school systems in the region have gone to commissioners for such a large bailout as Macon did. But Macon County partly got into the pickle by spending up its $3 million fund balance to cover funding shortfalls in recent years instead of making incremental cuts of its own as the state and federal cuts were being dished out.

In Haywood County, the school system has been making budget cuts for several years already — since the recession-induced funding shortfalls began to manifest.

Haywood Schools has 123 fewer positions and a budget that’s more than $5 million smaller than it was five years ago.

“Had we not trimmed back the 123 positions that no longer exist, I don’t know that our county commissioners here could have totally bailed us out,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte.

But it is understandable to delay or avoid it if possible.

“I can understand why any school system would avoid that if they could. It is very real and very painful to look people in the eye you know and love and tell them they won’t have a job next year,” Nolte said.

Sadly, the teaching force is the only place the school system can go to as cuts continue to pile up.

“The cuts have been too substantial for too long to be able to move stuff around and make it all good,” Nolte said.

Macon County will lose 25 positions and as a result see larger classes. Franklin High School will start class with about one less teacher in each core subject and larger classrooms. A typical math class at the high school can be expected to jump from 22 to 24 students to closer to 30, said Baldwin.

The district also had to implement a lengthy list of cuts to items such as educational software packages, referees for sports matches, travel and training stipends, administrative supplements and more. In all, the non-personnel cuts totaled about $.5 million.

“We’re making cuts wherever we can make cuts and preserve the classroom,” said Dan Moore, director of personnel for Macon County Schools.

Macon County will see $500,000 less in state education dollars this year compared to last — so the county funding increase won’t cover the new losses, let alone make up for the shortfall it already had.

The Macon County School Board unanimously passed a resolution last week decrying state cuts to areas like teachers assistants, increases in funding for the private school voucher program, lagging pay for teachers, and changes to their tenure programs.

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