Dropout program in jeopardy
Despite wild success rescuing high school dropouts and turning their lives around, the Haywood Community Learning Center is on the brink of closing if a funding quandary isn’t solved soon.
More than 550 would-be dropouts have earned a high school diploma through the program since its inception in 2007. But a $91,000 budget cut by Haywood County Schools for the center’s four part-time teachers now threatens the program’s continued existence.
Everyone seems to agree on the merits of the program, which is heralded as a statewide model. But who should pick up the tab has become a source of debate.
School board members said they personally weren’t aware of the implications that the budget cut would have on the center.
“It was never our intention to shut that program down. It is too good a program not to find the money,” School Board Member Bobby Rogers said. “Originally, we thought that there was enough grant money that if those positions went away then it would just be picked up by grants.”
School board members were told more than once by Superintendent Anne Garrett not to worry about the program because the director was looking for grants to make up the difference.
However, the school director says he was never under any illusion that he could find grants to make up the entire $91,000 being cut by the school system.
“When I was made aware of the cuts, I did what I have always done,” Ledford said. “I said I would try to find it, and I did try, but I couldn’t find it.”
The $91,000 cut to the program would wipe out the salaries of four part-time teachers who comprise the instructional backbone of the program. Without them, the center would have no teachers.
The dropout program is just one sliver of much larger budget cuts playing out. The school system is facing a $2.4 million budget shortfall next year, and while Ledford understands that, he wishes a program doing as much good as his — particularly given that it is 80 percent grant-funded to the tune of $400,000 a year — had been spared.
“I don’t know why it was decided that we could be cut,” Ledford said. “I don’t think it was a good decision, of course, and I have said that.”
When school board members approved the master list of budget cuts back in January, Garrett told them she felt confident Ledford would be able to make up the difference in grants. But as the weeks ticked by, it became clear that wasn’t actually the case.
“Once the cuts were announced I went to work to mitigate the cuts and I found some of it but I could not find it all,” Ledford said. He checked with all his grant sources, appealed to the community college for help, solicited community donations and even spent two days in Raleigh beating down doors in the legislative building — but to no avail.
Ledford is still $61,000 shy and out of other options.
At a work session last week, school board members were somewhat surprised to see the four part-time teachers at the community learning center on a list of employees being laid off due to budget cuts. They thought the positions would have been saved by now, yet were on the list of those getting pink slips this week.
“It was our understanding that they were going to be picked up by grants,” School Board Member Larry Henson said.
Garrett said she thought so, too.
“I met with Kyle Ledford and he said they thought they could pick it up with grants. Then he came back and said he was going to need $61,000,” Garrett told the school board.
Garrett then suggested making a direct ask to county commissioners.
“I think we need to write a letter to our county commissioners and ask them for funds for those students,” Garrett said.
“I think that would be a very reasonable request,” School Board Chairman Chuck Francis said. “It is a great program not only for the school but the community.”
School Board Member Bobby Rogers clarified for the record that those positions would be reinstated if the funding came through from the county.
“We are cutting them on paper but in reality they may not go away?” he asked.
It’s unusual for the school system to make a direct ask to county commissioners for a line item budget request. Typically, the county gives the school system a lump sum based on a funding formula that amounts to $2,022 per students this year.
But the funding formula is fatally flawed when it comes to the community learning center.
While the community learning center serves around 150 students a year, those students don’t really exist as far as the state and county are concerned. They come to the program as dropouts and aren’t considered students, so they aren’t counted when tallying up the state and county per pupil funding allocation to the school system.
A system that funds education based on head count simply doesn’t work when it comes to these students, who aren’t recognized as students. And that’s part of the rationale behind the school system’s request to the county for the $61,000.
Although the school system doesn’t get the full per pupil fare to support the program on the front end, it has historically subsidized the program anyway. It’s provided a building and pays for it’s overhead like utilities, custodians and insurance, which were left in the budget all along. The school system also funds a position at the center to support students with disabilities.
In return, the school system has benefited from a substantial decline in the dropout rate and the greater good of helping kids in real need.
Ball in county commissioners’ court now
Some county commissioners appear favorable to the idea of providing the funding.
“Can we do something? It is possible. I would be very receptive,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells, a former school board member.
Sorrells said the county has avoided earmarking funds in the school system’s budget for particular line items, however, and this could set a precedent the county doesn’t want to be in.
“We give them an amount of money and don’t dictate to them how they spend it,” Sorrells said. “We don’t want to get in a situation of telling them what to spend it on.”
This program may be important enough to deviate from that norm, however. Especially since many of the students aren’t being counted in the county’s budget formula for the school system, possibly justifying an alternative funding method or a line-item appropriation.
Sorrells said it is ironic that other counties in the region have looked to the community learning center as a model for rescuing dropouts, yet it is in jeopardy for want of $61,000.
“Here is this great program we are trying to mirror and it is being gutted out,” Sorrells said.
The bottom line in Sorrells’ view is that the community learning center is about more than providing dropouts with an education.
“It benefits the community as a whole,” Sorrells said.
Commissioner Bill Upton agreed.
“It has been an outstanding program. My concern is anything that is doing that much good needs a second look,” Upton said. “For the amount of money we are putting in, we are getting a lot out of it.”