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Haywood Schools aim to keep standards high despite budget challenges

haywoodHaywood County commissioners are once again standing by their commitment to public education, making good on a long-standing pledge to be one of the top counties in the state in local school funding.

Haywood ranks in the top 20 percent of school districts statewide when it comes to per student funding of public schools at the county level. And the money makes a difference, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte told commissioners last week.

Haywood County ranks 15th out of 115 school districts statewide in composite academic performance — a steady and impressive climb up from 40th place 10 years ago.

“Your funding does matter,” Nolte said at a county budget workshop last week. “We think it helps in a significant way. We perform better than a lot of people and couldn’t do that without the financial support.”

“You have done an amazing job,” Commissioner Mark Swanger replied. “I commend you in being among the top school systems in the state given the obstacles that you face.”

Haywood County commissioners understand those obstacles better than most — two of them have been on the school board themselves, while Commissioner Bill Upton used to be superintendent.

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“I’m glad to see the high standards we set when we were there are being upheld,” Upton joked.

“We appreciate the start you gave us,” Nolte quipped in return.

Despite the brief moment of levity, the budget workshop between school leaders and commissioners was a fairly sober affair.

While the county is giving the school system a modest increase in per student funding next year — clocking in at $2,022 per student this year, up from $1,982 per student last year — it falls dramatically short of what’s needed to stave off widespread budget cuts facing the school system.

Haywood County Schools has been reeling from a declining student body since 2008, due largely to out-migration in search of jobs and a lower birth rate during the recession years.

Although the demographic fallout of the recession appears to have finally stabilized last year, the school system was hit with another massive loss of students and funding — this time thanks to a rise in charter school attendance.

Haywood County Schools lost more then 190 students and $1.5 million to charter schools last year, mostly to the new start-up Shining Rock Classical Academy. 

Shining Rock hopes to increase enrollment next year, which means more students may leave the traditional public school system. If Shining Rock meets its enrollment target, Haywood County Schools could be losing another 150 students — bringing the total financial hit from charters to more than $3 million.

In response to declining funding, Haywood County Schools has enacted a $2.4 million budget cut plan for next school year.

“We’ve had to make some really drastic cuts in our school budget,” Superintendent Anne Garrett said.

The cut that got the most attention was the closing of Central Elementary School, a move aimed at saving on overhead by consolidating Central’s student body into other nearby elementary schools.

“Our buildings are not at capacity and our classrooms have been smaller,” Garrett said. 

But additional budget cuts have led to across-the-board reductions to everything from band, sports and chorus to vocational and dropout programs. The cuts also call for a reduction of 22 teachers. 

County commissioners sympathized with the conundrum facing school officials. The loss of students to charter schools over the past year has meant less funding, but expenses don’t automatically drop just because there are fewer students walking through the doors.

“Most of the costs are fixed. There’s not a large amount of money that’s not fixed,” Upton said. “If we have 100 more students or 100 less students, those fixed costs remain the same.”

The school system has the same number of music, art, PE and computer teachers to pay, the same number of school resource officers, the same number of librarians and custodians, and not to mention the same amount of overhead.

“You still got to heat the buildings, you still have to maintain them,” Swanger said. “Really all you can do is trim until we reach the tipping point that another school can be closed. I don’t mean to start a controversy, but it is just math.”

Nolte agreed with Swanger’s assessment of the dilemma.

“We don’t want to close any. If enrollment stabilizes or increases, we will be OK. If not, maybe not,” Nolte said.

While the $2.4 million in budget cuts calls for a reduction of 22 teachers, Nolte hopes layoffs can be avoided through natural attrition.

The charter school isn’t the only factor behind the school system’s budget cuts. The state has also cut its per student funding for classroom education, exacerbating the problem.

Meanwhile, the school system has to find ways every year to pay for higher costs of doing business, from insurance rates to replacing activity buses.

For example, when state legislators passed out pay raises for teachers, the burden was largely passed on to local school districts, who usually cover salaries of first-year teachers out of their own local budgets. The salary and benefit costs of a first-year teacher borne by the county has gone up $13,000, explained Angie Gardner, school finance officer.

Despite a massive outpouring from parents upset by the closure of Central earlier this year, only one person spoke at the school board’s public hearing on the budget Monday night — namely a father of two students who attend the Haywood County Alternative Learning Center, who asked the program be spared from any budget cuts. It is slated to lose funding for four of its part-time teachers who work with dropouts to continue on a GED path.

Despite being heralded as a statewide model and its designation as a 21st-Century Learning site, the school gets no state funding to support it and is funded completely through grants and local dollars.

Students attending the Alternative Learning Center have technically dropped out of the regular school system, and thus don’t count in the county’s pupil funding allocation it gets from the state.

It’s one of the many budget fallouts that result from rigid state and federal policies. For example, the school lunch program seems to face almost impossible odds to stay within budget based on federal reimbursement rates for low-income students on free or reduced lunch plans. The reimbursement isn’t enough to cover the actual cost of serving the meals.

“We are losing anywhere between 59 cents and 23 cents for every lunch that we serve,” said Alison Francis, school nutrition director.

The only bright spot remained the modest increase in per student funding the school system will get from the county.

More than a decade ago, county commissioners worked out a deal with the school system aimed at diffusing the annual tug-of-war at budget time. 

“We are most thankful for the per pupil expenditure you provide for us. I also thank you for the confidence you place in us,” reiterated Superintendent Anne Garrett.

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