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Macon County raises taxes to fund public education

Macon County raises taxes to fund public education

The property tax rate in Macon County will be increasing by half a cent after commissioners approved a 2019-20 budget that puts additional funding toward public education. 

While County Manager Derek Roland’s original budget presentation didn’t include several of the school system’s requests, ongoing budget talks helped convince commissioners that certain items couldn’t wait another year — and the county can’t depend on the state to fund those needs. 

“This small increase — and it is relatively small though it might not be to some folks, we realize that — we decided a long time ago that regardless of what Raleigh does or what Washington does it’s gonna come back to this board to keep our schools viable and we’ve tried to do that,” said Commissioner Ronnie Beale. 

Roland had an updated budget proposal for the board during a June 11 meeting that included a few of the most essential items for the school system. The original plan was to take $310,000 from the school’s capital outlay budget and allocate it to funding the current STEM coordinator position ($75,000); Macon County Early College ($75,000); teacher assistant supplement pay ($60,000) and the increased cost of operations ($100,000). 

However, the final budget keeps the $310,000 in the schools’ capital budget while also funding all of those items plus two additional STEM teaching positions for Macon County Schools for a total of $415,000. 

The additional half-penny property tax increase will generate an estimated $419,000, which will be enough to cover the extra school budget expenses. Macon’s property tax rate will increase from 36.9 cents per $100 of assessed value to 37.4 cents of assessed value. 

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Commissioner Karl Gillespie said he also supported increasing funds to enhance the school system’s STEM program because it was important for the students’ future and also the future workforce of Macon County. 

“I don’t want a tax increase any more than anyone else but I also realize that’s how things are funded,” he said. “We need to be educating our kids to be able to perform globally and the funding in this budget goes a long way to doing that.”

Commission Chairman Jim Tate said the board hasn’t raised taxes in the eight years he has served as a commissioner yet the cost of doing business has continued to increase — everything from pay increases, cost of school construction, and other unfunded mandates handed down from the state level. 

“I commend our county staff for what they’ve held together with a flat tax rate — it’s amazing we haven’t had an increase in that time,” he said. “Both of my children are in the public school system and personally I want to see us do all we can. We want to provide them what they need to be successful.”

Commissioner Gary Shields, a former high school principal, was also supportive of the additional funding for the schools, especially for the STEM coordinator and the two new STEM teachers. A Golden Leaf grant has funded the STEM coordinator position for the last couple of years but that funding has run out. He wants to see STEM continue in the schools and also see it grow to meet the increased demand. Right now with only one coordinator for the entire school district of 4,000 students, she can only do so much. Most of the STEM program opportunities are offered after school and the one class at the high school has a long waiting list. Hiring two new STEM teachers will allow more students to access the program. 

“I’m serving 11 schools in K through 12, working with SCC, writing grants, trying to fund after school programs and something’s gotta give,” said STEM Coordinator Jennifer Love. “These positions would move the program forward to get students ready for careers in the changing world. The demand is there. We had 56 students sign up for the one computer science class and have 192 students on the waiting list.”

Economic Development Director Tommy Jenkins also told commissioners how important it was to continue to build on the school’s STEM program to encourage kids to go into science, technology, engineering and math careers. 

“We feel like the STEM program is essential to our workforce development in Macon County — not just for students who want to pursue the sciences but it’s also for carpenters, plumbers — STEM education teaches you how to build and work through real life situations,” he said. 

The vote to approve the final budget with the amended changes passed 4 to 1 with Commissioner Paul Higdon in opposition. He said he could have gone along with the less than 2 point tax increase originally proposed to keep a revenue neutral budget but he couldn’t support a last minute decision to increase taxes for one department. 

“Why couldn’t we shift something around to stay within the small tax increase? I can’t approve a 2.5 mill increase when we charge you (county manager) with a revenue neutral,” he said. “I think we should spend some down on our fund balance but that’s probably not a popular opinion. “With a $22 million fund balance sitting there — I know we need a healthy fund balance — but $22 million seems more than adequate for a viable fund balance.”

Higdon also questioned whether the board should hold off on a final vote on the budget since the changes were announced during the budget hearing. 

Roland said there was nothing prohibiting the county from adopting the budget that night. 

Beale agreed some of the changes were last minute but that they just learned about a few emergency capital projects that had to be completed at the schools, including a broken chiller at Cartoogechaye Elementary and a leaky roof at the high school. Those projects alone will cost $221,000, which is why the county decided not to reallocate $310,000 from the schools’ capital outlay budget. In total, the school system will receive $1.15 million for capital improvements though the school board asked for $2.4 million. 

School Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin thanked the commissioners for their continued support of public education and understanding the position they’re in with the uncertainty of a state budget that won’t be passed until months after the county budget needs to be passed. 

“The recommendation tonight is not originally what we asked for but it will allow us to manage our budget for next year and it does go beyond and allows us to expand,” he said. “Since I’ve been superintendent for six years and this is the first time we’ve been able to expand what we’re providing to school children in Macon County. That’s something I’m excited about and I know our teachers and administrators are too.”

During the public comment portion of the budget hearing, several people spoke in favor of increasing taxes for education, including Macon County educator John deVille. Even though North Carolina has improved from 37th in the country to 29th for teacher pay, he pointed out that those salary increases have impacted the rest of the budget. 

“We’ve cannibalized the rest of the budget for supplies and textbooks,” he said. “And a lot of that (salary increase) has come from local supplements from the counties. We’re still 39th in per pupil funding so we’re still lagging far behind.”

Molly Phillips, a mother of children in the public school system made reference to an editorial in The Franklin Press stating that the county was adequately funding the school system. 

“They meant it positively but none of us want to be described as adequate. I know you have difficult jobs and there are many funding needs worthy, but study after study has shown the correlation between investing in public education and a reduction in crime, lower teen pregnancy rates, a rise in healthy lifestyles and economic stability,” she said. 

Nancy Scott of Franklin agreed that “adequate” wasn’t enough and that the school system can’t continue to keep doing more with less. 

“They have made the most of what they have but we need to strive for excellence,” she said. “We brag about having the lowest tax rate but we need to brag about having the best schools.”

Even with the property tax increase, Roland said Macon County is still below the regional average of 46 cents per $100 of assessed value.

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