The board held a work session June 6 to discuss outstanding issues in the budget process, opting to move up the meeting schedule to better accommodate board members’ travel schedules.
On May 21, County Manager Don Adams presented a proposed budget worth $65 million that would include no change from the county’s current property tax rate of 0.38 cents per $100 of value. However, on May 22 and May 23 commissioners heard from a variety of department heads and nonprofit directors looking for some additional provisions in the budget.
Two main issues drove the discussion June 6: whether the county should grant Jackson County Public Schools’ request for $88,000 toward curriculum support, and what should be done about homeless services for the winter ahead. Following the June 6 meeting, the budget commissioners will vote on June 11 will include the curriculum coordinator position and $130,000 for the shelter.
Discussing the curriculum coordinator
Superintendent Kim Elliott, Ph.D., presented the curriculum support proposal on May 22. It included a curriculum coordinator position, which would be paid on the teacher’s pay scale but as a 12-month employee, as well as $5,000 to hire tutors and pay teachers to work extended hours with students. Elliott said that if the remaining $83,000 was not needed to cover the coordinator’s salary and benefits, the rest of the money would go into additional tutors and teacher contract extensions.
“The bottom line is this whole package is about people who are going to help us raise test scores,” Elliott said in an interview.
When first introduced, the proposal met with pushback from commissioners.
“I know you go into really hard work to plan this budget, but I feel I wouldn’t be true to myself and my basic beliefs in education not to question the money for the curriculum coordinator,” Commissioner Gayle Woody, a former art teacher in the school system, said May 22, “when one of my gut beliefs is teacher-student interaction is the most important thing for student success.”
Commissioners Boyce Deitz and Ron Mau also seemed skeptical of the request.
The position, Elliott said, would do wonders for student success by putting someone in place who could work “elbow-to-elbow” with teachers to examine curriculum in a way it hasn’t been examined before, thereby improving test scores.
By June 6 it seemed that the majority of the board had shifted to support for the proposal.
“I’m of the opinion that if they think they need it, they’re the experts,” said Mau. “Let them do it.”
Woody said that she had visited with several school system employees in the intervening weeks, expressing her concerns and inviting them to try and change her mind. She said that numbers she was shown relating to academic growth and student readiness at Smoky Mountain High School shifted her perspective. The school has an academic growth score of 94.7 percent, she said, which is very good, but incoming student readiness is quite low, at 29.7 percent.
“They’re growing a huge amount while they’re in high school, and that’s showing in the testing, but they’re not coming to Smoky Mountain High School as ready as they could be, and that’s what she was hoping that curriculum coordinator would address, this deficit right here,” said Woody of one of the conversations she’d had.
Deitz, meanwhile, maintained his skepticism of the request.
“It seems like to me the best place to have the schools is on the bottom end, hiring people to teach kids, teach them to read,” he said. “It’s not on the top end.”
Commissioners also discussed the idea of developing a school funding formula for the next budget year similar to the one Haywood County uses. The formula is used to determine how much money the county will give the school system each year. Doing it that way, commissioners posited, would better allow the school system to do long-range planning and allow it to decide how to prioritize its dollars rather than petitioning the county to fund specific requests.
Debating homeless services
Jackson County’s situation regarding homeless services has been a topic of discussion for years, and commissioners are in the market for a permanent solution.
Last year, the county put out a request for proposals, looking for a lead organization to take over administration of the cold-weather shelter from the Southwestern Child Development Commission, which had announced that it didn’t intend to continue in the role when the 2018-19 fiscal year ended.
The only response received came from HERE in Jackson County, a newly formed organization that is administering the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rapid Re-housing Program in the region and also wants tackle the homelessness issue in Jackson. The group’s application listed a requested funding level of $245,000, quite a bit more than the $120,000 to $130,000 that the county has been shelling out for homeless services.
While HERE itself is very new, its board is composed of people who are experienced in working against homelessness in Jackson County and in collaborating with commissioners on the issue. However, said Adams, it will take time to develop the partnership — it won’t be possible to hammer out all the details before the new fiscal year begins July 1.
“The reality is they have no history, none,” he said. “HERE has no history in Jackson County.”
Adams said he was planning to meet with HERE’s leaders before the planned budget adoption to get an idea of what they could achieve with various levels of funding. He said he expected them to come back to commissioners with different options they could choose from to achieve various levels of service.
“I’m wanting to know what they can do with $130,000,” Adams said. “I want them to give a little more detail about what grants they’re applying for and what type of service Jackson County can expect for $130,000. I did indicate that I wanted the number to make sense, and what I mean by that is if for some reason another $10,000 would mean they’ve have some type of front office assistant and if they didn’t receive the $10,000 there would be a real gap in service, we need to know that.”
Commissioners expressed eagerness to work with HERE and to fund the organization at as high a level as possible. During the budget hearing June 4, 10 people had come to speak passionately in favor of funding for HERE, three of whom said they had personally experienced homelessness in Jackson County.
“I personally have lived the homeless experience in Jackson County,” said Mary Kate Crisp, who is a HERE board member. “I was in active addiction for three years, and I currently know several people who are still homeless and living in their cars or in tents in the woods or things like that in Jackson County. I know that it’s not a very visible problem for a lot of people in this area because it’s not Asheville and people aren’t living on the city streets and things like that, but I just want to bring to people’s attention that it is a very real issue within our county, and people that I care about are suffering because we don’t have the resources that people need.
Samantha Brawley, who currently works in the social services field, said she also found herself homeless in Jackson County during her struggle with addiction. Now, her client base includes homeless people, and she sees on a daily basis how little help there is for them.
“I have let people out under bridges, I have let people out that are at their family’s house where they’re not allowed. I have let people out in shelters all the way to McDowell County, away from whatever they have here, their appointments, their mental health services,” she said. “I’ve let them out at gas stations. I’ve let them out at hospitals, all the places they’re not wanted. I know we can’t let everyone in, but the folks I was working with were ready.”
During the June 6 discussion, multiple commissioners said they’d be fine with going ahead and funding HERE’s entire $245,000 request.
“Personally, I’m ready to fund their whole $245,000, their original request,” said Mau. “We’ve been kicking this down the road a long time. Let’s get it done. I’m ready to fund it.”
“Let’s not go into a partnership with someone setting them up for failure,” added Commissioner Mickey Luker. “If their request is for $245,000 and we’re giving them $130,000, we’re setting them up for failure.”
However, it’s unlikely the approved budget will include $245,000 in funding.
“Believe me when I tell you $245,000 is not necessary,” said Adams.
Because HERE is so young, it will take some time to iron out the details of the partnership, and even if the organization had the full dollar amount at its disposal now, it would take time to build up its operations to put the entire amount to good use.
“They’re not ready for the $245,000,” said Adams.
Other commissioners pointed out that, even with a budgeted amount of $130,000 for homeless services, the board could always appropriate additional funds from contingency later this year if deemed necessary.
“I think we need to develop our clear partnership for a year, and let’s see what they’re able to achieve,” said Adams. “I think after a year or two they might be in a position to truly give us a real vision and a real plan.”
The Jackson County Commissioners will vote on the proposed budget for 2019-2010 during a special-called meeting at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 11, in Room A201 of the Jackson County Justice and Administration Building.
The proposed budget is available online at www.jacksonnc.org/finance-department/jackson-county-budget-documents.