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Swain’s smart money: School officials approach budget with commissioners

fr robertwhiteSwain County Superintendent Sam Pattillo is taking a new approach this year. He’s requesting that county commissioners participate in the school district’s budgetary process. 

“I feel like we need to be more together in our planning process,” Pattillo told commissioners during a recent meeting during which a foundation was laid for future discussions. “The struggle and juggle is going to be between the facilities and our programs and the best way to educate our kids.”

During a meeting in April, the superintendent and school board members sat around a table with the commissioners. They outlined the district’s needs and stats. The bottom line wasn’t discussed. That’ll come later — at the end of this process, there will be a request for funds to continue fueling the county’s educational system. 

Pattillo requested another three meetings with the commissioners. 

“It’s pretty much a new approach,” said Swain Commissioner Robert White. 

White hails from academia. He was a coach, a teacher and a principal. 

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The commissioner also used to be the superintendent. He’s familiar with approaching county leaders during budget season. And he’s aware of Swain’s budgetary constraints. 

“I never went and asked unless I needed,” White said. “They couldn’t give you pie in sky. But they always tried.”

The commissioner  ventures that the board will try to do as much this year.

“We’re aware of their needs, and we’re going to help them out in any way that we can,” White said. 

During the recent joint discussion, commissioners heard about enrollment numbers and per-pupil spending and cuts higher up the food chain. They heard about the crunches that beg for additional local dollars. 

The student population in Swain has risen steadily over recent years. Then, last year it spiked sharply, increasing from 1,982 to 2,125 students.

“We don’t know where they’re coming from, but it seems to be increasing,” said Amanda Smith, calling the jump an incredible increase.

The growth comes at a time when the district is already facing needs. That wish list was laid before commissioners.

Pattillo outlined the need to hire three additional guidance counselors and a high school director of curriculum. He cited the requirement to institute a state-mandated third-grade summer reading program and the desire to start a kindergarten through second grade reading camp. The superintendent talked about the importance of focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), stressing testing performance and college preparation. 

The district’s facility needs were also placed on the table.  Some high school science classrooms are sans labs and there  are overcrowding issues in the cafeteria. And although West Elementary had an addition built a couple of years ago, East Elementary has grown and now needs additional classrooms. 

Patillo tied these needs to Swain’s students’ academic success.

“Decisions are going to have to be made about whether we can afford to do these,” the superintendent told the commissioners. “But it’s almost to the point where we can’t afford not to do these.”

The current year’s school budget is a bit over $21 million. In recent years, Swain County has provided $750,000 to the school district for programs. Since 2012, the schools have received an annual $160,000 for capital expenditures.

“Our appropriations have been the same for a while now,” Patillo noted the stagnation a few days after the joint meeting. 

At the same time, state and federal education dollars continue to decline. 

“They are going to be spending less money, and they want the counties to pick it up,” Patillo said. “It’s getting hard.”

Swain doesn’t know what math will be handed down as of yet. But expectations are not optimistic.

“One thing to keep in mind is that the state and the federal always seem to be shrinking,” said Smith. “It’s gonna be big this year. That’s what they’re saying.”

In the face of declining revenue from state and federal sources, the Swain school district looks to local officials to up the county’s funding levels. The  request is being made in a county that traditionally trails the pack where local funding is concerned. 

According to Public Schools Forum of North Carolina, in 2010-11 Swain’s local contribution ranked dead last again among North Carolina counties, spending $420 per pupil, compared to the state average of $1,762. However, district officials pointed out during their initial meeting with commissioners, that per-pupil amount jumps — to $10,105 in 2013 — when state and federal allotments are calculated into the equation. 

The current budgetary conversation between commissioners and the school district doesn’t appear to have concrete parameters yet. 

“We are trying to determine our bottom line,” Pattillo explained. 

Whatever the bottom line, the superintendent is hoping the discussion continues. He’s calling the initial meeting “a pretty good educational talk.”

“We’re still going through the water,” Pattillo said. “And we think we’ve got a good approach.”

Commissioner White said that he’s interested in the conversation’s future. He said the board recognizes the district’s needs. 

“We’ve got problems, but they’re not insurmountable,” the commissioner said. “We’ll work together. We’ll try to help each other.”

White also stressed that the schools are but one of the commissioners’ concerns. 

“We just have to look at our situation and see what we can afford and what we can’t,” he said. 

But the commissioner understands the district’s needs and considers education of high importance. He talks about long-term needs like a new high school and additional elementary schools. 

White said he knows the district has needs. Hopefully not ones that require a tax increase, but he doesn’t flinch when the subject comes up.

“We’ll do whatever we have to do to reach our objectives,” the commissioner said. “We can’t leave them struggling.”

Swain County Manager Kevin King is taking a similar stance — “education is the number one priority of Swain County” — but also gives a nod toward the realities of the budget season.

“They probably won’t get all of what they asked for, but they might get some,” King said. 

Pattillo hopes the local officials will arrive at an amiable outcome, whatever that is. He’s hoping to be able to afford a future he contends Swain students need.

“We’re either going to have to make a choice and say, ‘either public education is important or it’s not,’” the superintendent said. 

So far, the district’s wish list sounds reasonable to White. 

“That’s not pie-in-the-sky,” the commissioner said, “that’s honest-to-God needs.”

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