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Macon schools pleads for more resources

Macon schools pleads for more resources

Angela Phillips painted a painfully realistic picture of what it’s been like inside her second-grade classroom at Cartoogechaye Elementary for the last few years. 

“The mental health issues and the lack of proper parenting is making our job virtually impossible,” she told the Macon County Board of Commissioners last week. “I will say this bold statement and maybe it’s wrong, but if I had a child or grandchild entering Macon County Schools right now I’d be very hesitant. I’d be very concerned seeing what I’ve seen.”

During a recent county budget workshop, Phillips described for commissioners the many challenges she and other teachers are up against as state funding cuts and societal issues play out in a school setting. With 27 years of experience teaching second grade, Phillips knows her job is more than academics — teaching kids to tie their shoes, dealing with tears, bloody noses and upset tummies — it all comes with the territory. 

However, she said the issues kids were dealing with 20 years ago are nothing compared to what they’re going through nowadays. How are teachers supposed to make curriculum a top priority when they have 7-year-olds crying their eyes out because their dad was arrested last night or falling asleep at their desk because they weren’t able to sleep in their noisy house the night before, Phillips asked. 

“We have children not getting the proper love and instruction they need from birth,” she said. “We had a mother of a child in my class get a DUI while in the car rider line — that’s a pretty big obstacle for kids to overcome. If they’re sad, worried or scared, education is not happening.”

When she started teaching, Phillips said she had an average of 18 students in her classroom with a full-time teacher’s assistant. Now she has 25 students at a time and only has a TA for an hour and a half each day, which means the TA is rarely there when she actually needs her for any type of emergency. Phillips said she can’t adequately meet the needs of 25 students without a full-time TA, especially with all the issues many of them are going through. 

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“We need people — they don’t need another game or screen — they need someone to love them and listen to them and give them instruction,” she said. “The children that have the ability to learn and are from a home that is stable don’t get the instruction they deserve because my time is so taken up with just problems.”

She never thought she’d see so many second-graders with mental health issues because of the trauma they’re going through at home. In her early teaching years, she said she might have one-fourth of the students going through major issues at home, but now it’s more like three-fourths of the class. 

“Academics is taking a backseat to the mental health issues and other problems when it should be my number one priority,” Phillips said. 

Phillips’ testimony was important for commissioners to hear as they try to meet the needs of the Macon County school system within the limits of the 2019-20 county budget. In the proposed budget presented to commissioners May 14, County Manager Derek Roland expressed satisfaction with the amount of local funding Macon provides to the school system.

According to figures published by the Office of the State Superintendent for fiscal year 2017-18, local funding accounted for 23.2 percent of total per pupil expenditures in the Macon County School System with an average of 4,325 students. At this level, Roland said local funding in Macon was well above the seven-county region of 20.7 percent. He said Macon County’s average teacher pay is $51,700 — $1,460 above the regional average. 

“While information from the State Superintendent’s Office only includes FY 17-18 figures, one can assume that the $1,257,000 or 15 percent increase in local funding provided to the School System since FY 17-18 will allow us to improve upon our position in the west, in terms of local educational funding levels, for the coming fiscal year,” Roland wrote in his budget message. 

Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin said the school system appreciated the increase in local funding last year from the county, the system is still going to experience a funding shortfall for 2019-20 if county funding levels don’t increase over last year. 

The school system requested nearly $8.8 million from the county to cover operating expenses for 2019-20, but the proposed budget recommends $7.8 million — the same amount budgeted during the 2018-19 budget. For capital outlay, the school system asked for $2.4 million and the budget includes $1.15 million. The budget also allocates $472,590 for teacher supplemental pay though the school system requested $627,085. 

“At the time of this budget message it appears that the state budget will have no adverse impact on the School System from FY 18-19-FY 19-20, thus, an increase in local funding should not be needed to maintain the current level of service,” Roland reported. 

However, Baldwin said the information presented in the budget don’t offer a complete and accurate picture of the local and state funding situation in the region. When comparing per pupil funding with other counties in the region, it does appear to be above average — with only Haywood County funding about 1.2 percent more per student. Swain and Graham counties provide 17.4 percent local funding for their respective school systems; Clay funds 15.8 percent; Cherokee funds 23.8 percent; Jackson funds 22.9 and Haywood funds 24.4 percent. Baldwin said counties like Swain and Graham receive more state and federal funding for schools because of their low tax bases and because much of the county is occupied by national forest and national park. For example, Swain received $1.6 million last year for small schools; $162,000 for being a low-wealth county and $577,000 from the federal government in impact aid funding. 

“Because Swain, Clay, Graham and Cherokee receive that money, they can use it to pay for teachers’ salaries. We don’t so ours has to come out of local funds to retain teachers,” Baldwin said. 

The state does provide funding to pay teachers based on their ADM (Average Daily Population), but those calculations aren’t always accurate. If Macon County ends up with more students than anticipated or students enroll after the tenth day of school, the school system would have to find additional funding to hire more teachers in order to keep class sizes within state-mandated limits. 

Baldwin anticipates needing four more kindergarten through third-grade teachers to meet the class size requirements, which mandate K-3 classrooms not have more than 22 students. Highlands School, a geographically isolated K-12 school, is projecting 25 first-graders and 24 kindergartners for 2019-20, which means two first-grade classes and two kindergarten classes and a TA for each class. However, he said the county’s recommended budget does not fully fund the TA salaries and supplement the system needs.

As Phillips pointed out, more full-time teacher assistants are needed in kindergarten through second-grade classrooms instead of a 29-hour position that rotates between classrooms during the day. 

“The 29-hour people are great but they’re there until they get a 40-hour a week job,” she said. 

Baldwin also predicts adding a kindergarten class at Cartoogechaye, a first and second-grade class at South Macon, and a first-grade class at East Franklin. Meanwhile, Nantahala School — the county’s other isolated K-12 school — will only have about 10 students in each class. 

“Because of our number of schools in Macon and because students don’t come in perfect blocks of 18, we face some unique problems,” Baldwin said.    

When it comes to teacher salaries and local supplements, Baldwin said Macon is still falling behind and has to compete not only with other western counties but also with Rabun County School system across the Georgia state line. 

“There are 115 districts in the state — 101 of them have higher supplements than Macon County,” he said. 

Transylvania County offers a $4,160 annual supplement; Haywood offers $2,624; Jackson offers $975 and Macon offers $964. The average salary of a teacher in Rabun County is about $4,070 more than the average teacher in Macon County. With Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp proposing to increase teacher salaries by $3,000 in the coming year and another $2,000 in 2021, Baldwin said it’s going to be much harder for Macon to recruit and retain quality teachers. 

The school system is also expecting the state not to fund the early college as much as it has in the past and could be facing a $75,000 shortfall. The county budget also doesn’t fund the system’s STEM coordinator position of $75,000 or the bonus pay the school board requested for its custodial and clerical employees, which would cost $96,000. With only about $1.3 million in fund balance, the school system can’t afford to keep absorbing the rising costs. 

“Without these provisions the school system will be forced to utilize $170,000 of fund balance to maintain our current level of service,” Baldwin said. “We anticipate that overall costs will increase again in fiscal year 2020-21.”

Commissioner Ronnie Beale asked if Phillips had expressed her concerns at the state level to Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. 

“When you can’t afford teacher assistants you pay for it dearly later,” he said. 

“I did but I can’t talk about it without crying,” she replied. “I was not pleased (with the response).”

Commissioner Gary Shields said he understood the importance of the STEM coordinator position — STEM skills are essential for workforce development. The school system wants to continue to grow their program by integrating STEM into the curriculum much earlier. 

“The program is a turning point for all these young people — it’s generating energy with the young people and will create a more qualified worker,” he said. 

The county’s next budget workshop will be held at 4 p.m. Monday, June 3, at the county courthouse. 

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