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Declining school enrollment prompts unusual financial ask

Officials cited multiple factors contributing to declining enrollment. Officials cited multiple factors contributing to declining enrollment. HCS photo

Nearly all manner of calamity — global pandemic, cyber-attack, flooding and an impending shutdown of one of the area’s largest, highest-paying employers — has befallen Haywood County in the last three years, with all of them now conspiring to produce a decline in school enrollment that will most certainly create problems of its own.

On April 3, County Manager Bryant Morehead relayed a request to Haywood County commissioners from Trevor Putnam, superintendent of Haywood Schools.

Commissioners approved the request, sending a letter of support to the North Carolina General Assembly and the Department of Public Instruction asking for a “hold harmless” provision that would give the county the flexibility it says it needs to stabilize its finances.

“We’ve had declining enrollment over the past several years. We’ve lost approximately 600 of 7,100 students, so that has us resting at about 6,500, which has implications for the size of staff,” said Putnam. “These adjustments must be made, but a hold harmless provision would allow us to right-size through attrition.”

School funding is tied directly to enrollment numbers. The greater the number of students, the more money the district receives. The capital portion of that funding is especially important, as it basically sets the bar for future facility improvements. The county also partially funds the school system through a funding formula it revisits periodically.

Currently, each student is funded to the tune of about $12,000, meaning those 600 students who’ve gone elsewhere have taken around $7.2 million with them. Putnam’s total budget is on the order of $70 million.

The desired effect of Putnam’s request is that the state freeze per-pupil state funding at current levels for the next three fiscal years, through June 30, 2026. Putnam said he didn’t think the right-sizing would include adjustments to facility operations.

“The school system is making strides toward developing a strategic long-term plan to address these challenges and realistically assess and predict school enrollment, personnel and facility needs for the future,” reads the request. “A Hold Harmless Provision for fiscal years 2023-2024, 2024-2025, and 2025- 2026 would simplify planning significantly by ensuring a base level of state funding for the duration of time needed to design and implement a right-sizing plan that meets the current and future needs of the students and community.”

Putnam told The Smoky Mountain News on April 3 that he’s already made the ask to Haywood County’s legislative delegation, including Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood), Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon) and Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell). Putnam also said he thinks Sen. Mike Lee (R-Hanover), a co-chair of the Senate’s education committee, has seen the request as well.

Including the request for the funding level freeze, Putnam’s also asking for flexibility in two other areas — allocations and class sizes.

State law dictates maximum class sizes; if just one more student shows up to a class than is allowed by law, schools must designate another teacher to bring things into compliance, which isn’t the most efficient use of those resources.

Allocation flexibility refers to some state-funded positions that are only half-funded; since schools can’t hire half of a person, flexibility would allow schools to dip into other pots of money to fund the other half.

As far as the right-sizing plan mentioned in the request, Putnam said that it will be discussed with the Haywood County Schools’ elected board during an April 20 work session. Once the board approves the plan, it will be formally presented during a budget public hearing scheduled for April 27.

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