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News Budget work session reveals dismal future for school district

In anticipation of inevitable funding cuts to public education next school year, the Macon County Board of Education strategized during a work session on how to prepare for the 2012/13 budget.

During Tuesday morning’s meeting, members of the Board of Education discussed the anticipated budget for next year and entertained conversation about areas that could be cut to make up for a reduction in state and federal funds.

Next year, Macon County is anticipating an increase in the state reversion and is planning to send $1.4 million back to Raleigh, said Cook. Last year, Macon County had to send $1.2 million back to the state, and they are planning for a 5 percent increase to that amount this year. “Basically what the state is doing is shifting the burden of making cuts to the district,” said Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman. “They give us our budget for the year and are now saying out of those funds, identify additional areas that you can cut and send us back the $1.4 million.”

With the district’s financial burden continuing to shift to local school districts, the central office staff is bracing for shortfalls. Despite drastic cuts to the public education budget on both the state and federal level, Macon County is one of the few, if not the only, county in the state that has not had to lay off a single employee. The district has been able to keep every employee because of the careful planning and budgeting done by the central office staff.

Positions have been eliminated throughout the district once an employee resigns or retires. When Pam Collins, former Community Schools Coordinator for the district retired, her position was not filled and the duties for that position were allocated to other central office staff members.

“We have cut it just about as close as we can cut it,” said Dan Moore, Director of Personnel for the district, about positions which have been eliminated so far. “We have reduced teacher assistant positions while class size continues to climb. In my opinion, that’s a recipe for failure.”

According to Moore, there are few, if any, positions left in the district that can be cut without adversely affecting the students.

Last month, board member Jim Breedlove requested the district’s finance director, Angie Cook, compose a list of “addons” in the district that could be cut as a last resort. The entire board agreed that all areas of the school system should be closely examined and evaluated as potential targets for cuts before any employee is laid off.

At Breedlove’s request, Cook worked with the superintendent to develop a list of possible areas to be eliminated which included things from library assistants at the high school to all of Union Academy.

“We do not want to have to cut or eliminate any of these positions or services,” said Dr. Brigman. “But with more cuts heading our way, we have to consider that this is where we are at now, and have to do what is in the best interest of our students.”

One possible solution to make up for the budget cuts is utilizing the fund balance as much as possible to avoid having to cut positions or programs. Board members voiced their concern on having to rely on the fund balance early on, and noted that over the next few years the budget cuts could worsen and that the fund balance should be reserved as a last resort down the road. “I think we should look at using our fund balance, even if it does get down to zero.” said board member Stephanie McCall. “I think it would be better to have a balance of zero than not to have teachers.”

The school system’s fund balance acts as a sort of “savings account” for the district. It is built off of money left over each year after all expenditures for the year are paid. “We have tried the past few years to make sure we kept an adequate fund balance “just in case as one hopefully would with their own individual financial resources,” said Cook.

During the Board of Education’s annual board retreat last month, Breedlove noted that in the past, Dr. Brigman has been scrutinized for building up a fund balance just for the sake of having one. He commended the superintendent for preparing for the future and added that he would not want to be on the Board of Education without having the comfort of the fund balance. Otherwise, the school system’s financial sustainability would be even more uncertain.

County pitching in

When preparing the school system’s annual budget, Cook solicited maintenance requests from each school to be considered for the district’s capital outlay fund, which is supplied by the county each year. This year, Macon County received $250,000 from the county for line item projects. All of the monies provided by the county were allocated for specific projects, like new boilers for Highlands’ school.

With the county experiencing a belt tightening in their own budget, County Commission Chair Kevin Corbin told the school board during a Joint Facilities Review Committee meeting last month that the school should anticipate receiving the same amount of funds for next year, even though several school sites are in desperate need of immediate attention.

Under the advisement of Jack Horton, County Manager, Superintendent Brigman began looking into acquiring QZAB (Qualified Zone Academy Bonds) and QSAB (Qualified School Construction Bonds) for capital outlay projects in the district.

Both QZAB and QSAB are pockets of state monies that are designated for school maintenance and renovations. The county utilized these funds when making needed renovations to East Franklin Elementary. The money is available to school districts across the state to allow needed repairs to be made. Furthermore, the money is available at little to no interest.

During Tuesday night’s Board of Commissioners meeting, commissioners unanimously voted to allow the superintendent to begin the applications to apply for $1.5 million in QZAB funds and $2,023,000 in QSAB funds.

The money would cover capital outlay requests throughout the district, such as a science classroom and bathroom renovations at Franklin High School, roof and sidewalk repairs at Highlands, custodial equipment for the new Iotla Valley school, roof repairs at Macon Middle School, windows and carpet for the media center at Nantahala, an outdoor basketball court for South Macon, and renovations to Union Academy.

If the state approves Macon County with the bond monies, the county is under no obligation to accept the money. After the state reviews the applications and a decision is made, the county will have another meeting to decide if they want to use that money for renovations to the school district.


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