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Haywood’s dropout program rescued

fr schoolsaskAn innovative high school dropout program in Haywood County was rescued from the chopping block this week after county commissioners and school officials agreed to go halves on the $61,000 needed to keep it open.

Despite serving as a statewide model for how to re-engage high school dropouts and turn them into graduates, the Haywood Community Learning Center got caught up in the carnage of a $2.4 million budget shortfall facing the Haywood County School System.

School leaders appealed to county commissioners at the county’s meeting this week to pitch in and help save the program.

“We are here to ask, if there is any way possible, if we could ask for help,” School Board Chairman Chuck Francis pleaded to commissioners.

Commissioners asked how the dropout program ended up on the chopping block in the first place. 

“This is one of the better, if not the best, dropout prevention program in the state. If it is such a successful program, why was it cut in the first place?” Commissioner Mark Swanger asked.

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School leaders replied that they were forced to look under every rock given the budget shortfall they faced.

“It hit every single program that we had,” Superintendent Anne Garrett said. “This was just a very unfortunate situation.”

School leaders said they never intended to jeopardize the learning center by including it in the budget cuts, however.

“We initially thought the portion of the funding we are talking about could be covered with grants,” said Francis. “Later we found that that was not the case.”

The school system cut the budget for the learning center by $91,000, which pays the salaries of four part-time instructors who make up its core teaching staff.

The program is largely grant-funded. Garrett said they assumed the director of the program, Kyle Ledford, could use grant funding to make up the difference, and while he closed the gap some, he still came up short by $61,000.

That landed the school system on the county commissioners’ doorstep seeking help. Commissioners agreed to pay for half the deficit if the school system picked back up the other half.

“We will be able to backfill, with your help, the complete program,” Francis said.

Swanger asked if the school system was committed to the program going forward.

“It would almost be a waste if we give the money now and you cut the program in two years anyway,” Swanger said.

School leaders replied that the program was indeed something they were committed to. 

County commissioners universally praised the learning center for its role not only in improving the lives of its students, but also for the greater long-term benefits to the entire community.

“It is money well spent,” Commissioner Mike Sorrells said.

The program has helped more than 550 would-be dropouts earn their high school diplomas since its inception in 2007, lowering the county’s dropout rate to only 1 percent.

“Your results speak for themselves. I don’t think anybody in the state can match those numbers,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.

Without the program, many of those dropouts would have no doubt ended up on public assistance or in the court system, Sorrells said.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley said many of the students served by the program didn’t have the same advantages of a stable home and supportive parents that he did as a child, and that this program is a last chance for them.

“You have made a change in young people’s lives, and it helps the community,” Ensley said. “You have opened up opportunities for them to have a strong education and become members of the community.”

 

11th-hour ask

The 11th-hour request from the school system deviated from its normal budgeting procedure — namely by asking the county for more money after initially agreeing to a school funding level. The county and school system have a standing gentlemen’s agreement that has become known over the past 15 years as the “funding formula.”

It was the first time since the funding formula’s inception that the school system came calling for more money over and above the agreed on funding formula level.

Francis assured commissioners it was an outlier.

“We will not be in the habit of coming up here each week or each month to ask for more money,” Francis said, calling the current funding from the county “very generous.”

Haywood County ranks in the top 20 percent statewide when it comes to local funding for education. While schools get the majority of their funding from the state, counties kick in a significant share, funding everything from bus drivers to teachers to school security. How much to give schools is up to each individual county, however. 

The discretionary system in North Carolina sets the stage for an annual tug-of-war between commissioners and school leaders — school leaders strong arm commissioners to give them more and commissioners counter by playing hardball.

In hopes of rising above the politics of the annual school funding dance, Haywood County commissioners and school leaders struck a deal nearly 15 years ago known as the “funding formula,” which pre-determines local school funding based on head count, with a modest increase built in year-over-year to account for inflation.

The funding formula provides budget security for the school system, and in exchange keeps commissioners out of the hot seat.

While commissioners agreed with the merits of the dropout program and the rationale behind the ask, they made it clear they didn’t particularly like the school system’s 11th-hour request that fell outside the funding formula agreement.

Francis called this case “an extenuating circumstance,” however.

“We are thankful the commissioners were willing to work with us to backfill the funding for this program,” Francis said following the meeting. “It’s nobody’s fault. It just happened.”

 

Long-term fix

While the Haywood Community Learning Center is no longer facing an imminent threat of closure, the long-term challenge of how to fund the program remains an issue.

The problem is that many students in the program don’t get counted as students when it comes to per-pupil funding allocations from the state and county. While most of the students eventually earn their diplomas through the program, they are considered dropouts in the meantime and aren’t counted in the student tally that determines state and county funding.

Sorrells said that needs to change.

“I would like to see these kids counted into the ADM,” he said, referring to the student head count known as “average daily membership.”

Figuring out how to count students in the dropout program for funding purposes isn’t easy, however.

“Determining the exact appropriate and fair amount is a little difficult,” County Manager Ira Dove said.

While the center may serve 150 students in a given calendar year, they aren’t full-time traditional students. 

The school day doesn’t have a start and stop time. Exams aren’t held on a set schedule. Instead, students work at their own pace, with teachers serving more as tutors to help students master subjects and earn credits.

Since the students aren’t full-time, it’s unclear how to count them when it comes to per-pupil funding.

“It needs to be pro-rated in some way so we can get a real number,” Swanger said.

The program director, Kyle Ledford, said that is something they are currently trying to arrive at.

At the county meeting this week, Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick drilled down on exactly how the current per pupil funding calculations work — or don’t work — when it comes to the dropout program.

Kirkpatrick pointed out that the school system captures funding for at least some of the dropout students — namely those who begin the school year on the rolls of another high school in the county and were counted in the school system’s ADM before transferring to the learning center.

But some begin the school year already at the learning center, and those aren’t counted at all when it comes to funding allocations.

Garrett said another problem is that the state’s per-pupil funding allocation isn’t paid in real money. Instead, it’s paid in warm bodies — the state allocates teaching positions commiserate with head count, and teaching slots can’t be shuffled around once the school year starts to follow the students across town to the learning center.

The learning center offers students critical flexibility and a safe setting to give school another try.

For some, it’s a refuge from the merciless social pressures of traditional high school. For others, it’s a lifeline for food and housing assistance. And for others, who are working and may have babies of their own, the school is like a whole team of mentors helping teach them how to make it in the world.

“You have created a solution,” Ensley told Ledford.

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