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Macon works toward middle ground on school funding

fr maconschoolsMacon County Schools Superintendent Chris Baldwin came before the county commissioners last week to plead his case for additional funding in the 2016-17 budget.

County Manager Derek Roland’s proposed budget recommends decreasing the allocation for school operating expenses to $6,995,431 while increasing funding for school capital projects from $300,000 to $500,000. 

“While operating expenses have been reduced, this reduction comes in response to an increase in state funding levels for operational expenses, combined with the school system’s efforts in reducing the number of locally paid teachers through attrition and transfers to state and federal funds,” Roland stated in his budget presentation. “Both state funding levels and efforts by the school system have proven to be successful and sustainable as illustrated in the substantial multi-year fund balance growth.”

Baldwin said he appreciated the additional funding for capital projects, but also requested the county maintain the operational funding levels from 2013-14 — $7,338,330 — because of all the financial uncertainties that the school system is facing.  

Since 2010, the student population in Macon County has grown from 4,272 to 4,363 while the state has continued to cut per-pupil funding. The result has been a reduction in staff for Macon County Schools even though there are more students to educate. Baldwin said the school system had 611 employees in 2010 compared to 577 employees now. 

“We have more students in the classroom and less employees in the classroom with those students,” Baldwin said. “Our estimated enrollment for next year is 4,417.”

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Baldwin said the school system has also struggled to keep enough money in its fund balance for the last several years. The schools’ expenses exceeded revenues in 2014, putting the system $116,000 in the hole. He said the school has worked hard to keep a healthy fund balance, but it didn’t mean Macon County Schools was flushed with cash now. Also, a large portion of the money sitting in the fund balance account is restricted for special uses and can’t be used for general operating expenses. 

Keeping a healthy fund balance is also important for the school system because bills typically have to be paid long before the school receives its funding from the state. With the General Assembly discussing further cuts to teacher assistants and driver’s education, Baldwin said Macon County Schools had to be prepared to fund those programs to the tune of $364,000 with or without the state funding. 

“The only way to do that was to cut other positions — through attrition we made up the portion needed,” Baldwin said. “In November (2015) we got our state allocation that covered teacher assistants and driver’s ed, but we couldn’t hire teachers back at that point.”

Through attrition, state funding and other cost savings, the school system currently has a fund balance of about $1.4 million, but a big chunk of that is already allocated to fund teachers that aren’t covered by state funding. If more bonus and salary increase mandates come down from the state, Macon County Schools will have to dole out more local money to cover the costs. 

“For 2015-16, we only received enough state funding for 411 employees — we have 577 total employees,” Baldwin said. “And the state told us to plan on a 3-percent salary increase and more bonuses this year.”

Baldwin said the school system also had hopes to use some of that fund balance to hire a couple more teachers in order to lower classroom sizes at the elementary schools from 30 students down to 20 students and implement a summer school program for fourth-graders in hopes of improving fifth-grade test scores.

Commissioner Ronnie Beale, who acts as a liaison for the school board, said he understood the struggles and uncertainties the school system was facing. While the board wasn’t willing to agree to maintain 2013-14 funding levels for the school, Beale said he was certain a middle ground could be found before the June 14 public hearing on the budget. 

“I think we’ll have a recommendation that the school board and this board can all be proud of — the bottom line is helping students,” he said. 

Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin agreed. 

“A $342,000 difference is what we’re talking about — we can find a way to get there,” he said. 

 

Macon County 2016-17 budget overview

  • The 2016-17 proposed budget is $47,694,248 — more than a $1 million increase over last year. 
  • The county will maintain a “revenue neutral” tax rate of 34.9 cents per $100 of assessed property value. 
  • Estimated revenue from property tax — $25,958,438 (3 percent increase over last year)
  • Estimated revenue from sales tax — $6,751,557
  • Estimated revenue from motor vehicle tax — $959,472 (16 percent increase over last year)
  • General debt service payments — $4.5 million (decreased by $18 million since 2011)
  • Fund balance — $19 million (40 percent of the county’s annual expenditures) 

 

Funding request

Macon County Schools has requested the county maintain its funding levels for operating expenses at $7,338,330 for 2016-17. At this funding level, the school system proposes to accomplish the following:  

  • $111,600 will go toward a 3 percent projected increase in salary and benefits for locally paid employees
  • $80,000 in bonuses for locally paid employees
  • 8.5 new locally paid positions will be created  
  • $13,500 will be given in athletic supplements  

 

Public input

Macon County commissioners will hold a public hearing regarding the proposed 2016-17 budget at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 14, at the Macon County Courthouse. The public is welcome to ask questions or express concerns during the public hearing. 

See the complete proposed budget at www.maconnc.org.

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