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Jackson County comes up short on $4.8 million ask from school district

schoolsLeaking roofs, technology needs and impending state cuts prompted Jackson County Schools to put out a hefty ask to the county at the beginning of its budget talks, but it’s looking like the school system will wind up with only about half of the original $4.8 million in new funding it asked for.

“Right now without borrowing additional money or raising taxes, we just don’t have enough money to fully fund their capital request,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners at their work session last week.

Of that $4.8 million, $2.1 million was to go toward some much-needed roof renovations for seven of the system’s nine roofs; $720,000 was slated for technology upgrades and progress on the school system’s initiative to provide one computing device for every student. A $650,000 line item would have funded Astroturf at Smoky Mountain High School, and another $1.12 million was for personnel compensation — $700,000 to compensate for state cuts to teacher assistant funding and $423,000 for the local supplement to state-paid teacher salaries. 

All reasonable requests, Commission Chairman Brian McMahan said. 

“It’s not full of a lot of fluff,” he said. “There’s not a lot of padding or a lot of extras. It’s a basic budget just to get by.”

But there’s just not enough money to go around, commissioners said. They’ll fund the schools’ capital needs at $2.37 million but can’t go any higher. However, they said, they won’t attach the dollars to any specific project on the schools’ wish list, instead letting the system prioritize the dollars itself. 

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Superintendent Mike Murray said he’s grateful for the commissioners’ willingness to let the schools decide how to use the funding and that he “truly value[s] the strong relationship” that the schools have with commissioners. 

But, Murray said, “We do have concerns about our roofing needs. The money that I had asked for was the results from a facility study that the county commissioners had paid for.  With seven of our nine roofs needing attention, I really wanted to get as many of them repaired as possible.”

Of the nine roofs the school system is responsible for, seven are more than 20 years old. That’s the point at which replacement becomes critical, because they could cave in at any moment. In 2013, the roof at Cullowhee Valley Elementary did. Murray, who is in his fourth year as superintendent, said it would have been better to squirrel away funds to replace the roofs little by little rather than waiting until they all reached emergency status, but at this point the work just needs to get done to prevent a more costly cleanup and the safety hazards that come with a cave-in. He’s developed a five-year plan to get the replacements done. 

“At Smoky Mountain High School when it rains, there are buckets out there catching water in several of the classrooms,” he said. “That’s why that’s priority one for me, because that’s not acceptable.”

The $400,000 for technology replacement is also vital so the school can keep on its eight-year replacement cycle — it used to be a five-year cycle — and the additional $321,000 of technology funding would continue the one-to-one computing initiative the system began last year, Murray said. 

The only portion of the request that was not absolutely necessary, Murray said, was the Astroturf. He threw it in because he had an opportunity for a grant that could greatly lower the cost and believes the turf would pay off in the long run. It’s more durable and requires less maintenance than grass, so the field could be used for both games and practices regardless of weather.

On the operations side, the system needs to keep up its teacher supplement funding to attract good teachers to Jackson County and also needs funds to prepare for possible state cuts to drivers education. More state cuts mean the system needs extra money to keep the teaching assistants that the school system has managed to retain on staff — Murray has already cut their hours in order to avoid layoffs. 

Commissioners were sympathetic to the school system’s plight of dealing with aging buildings and continued uncertainty regarding state funding but said they simply couldn’t provide the full capital request. 

As far as operations, they said they’re willing to fund teacher supplements and are committed to keeping teacher assistants in kindergarten and first grade. But the school system has a pretty sizable fund balance, and commissioners said they didn’t feel comfortable allocating $700,000 from the county budget for teacher assistants when the school holds $4.2 million — 60 percent of its operating expenses for the year — in savings. 

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about their funding, there’s no doubt about it,” Wooten told commissioners. “But in my opinion, we don’t need to increase the commitment to current expenses just to increase the fund balance.”

 That’s reasonable, Murray said. 

“I agree totally with the teacher assistant decision,” he said. “With their decision to move in that direction, it will allow me to notify our assistants right away and assure them that they will all maintain their jobs for the next school year.”

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