Macon Early College, Union off the chopping block.
During a special called budget work session on Monday in Highlands, the Macon County Board of Education discussed possible funding cuts for next school year. Last month, the school board released a list of proposed budget cuts totaling $1,950,393 for next school year, which was intended to balance the budget after an anticipated $2 million shortfall in the 2013-14 budget.
After further review of February's list, Interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Duncan informed the board that he had worked with incoming superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin and Macon County Schools finance director Angie Cook to revise the proposed cuts. “We looked at the list we brought to you in February, and wanted to exempt anything that involved student/teacher interaction,” said Dr. Duncan.
Since 2008, the county has contributed an average of about $6.8 million a year to the school system's budget. Last year, the county contributed $6.9 million. Dr. Duncan informed the board that if no changes are made in the day-to-day operations, the school system would have to ask the county for an increase of $2,033,518 next year, making their total request from the county being $8,944,518. Because of the current state of the economy, and cut backs on the county level, Dr. Duncan said, that while it was uncertain how much the county would give the schools, he was certain they would not fund the entire amount needed.
The new list of proposed cuts total $917,159, which would mean the school board would need to request $1,116,359 more in county funds for 2013-14 than they did last year.
In February, Dr. Duncan proposed closing two schools in the district, Macon Early College and Union Academy. The newest list has removed both of those facilities from the chopping block, saving them for at least another year. “Macon Early College and Union Academy both receive state funds to operate,” said Dr. Duncan. “Because of the direct teacher to student interaction the schools have, we have removed them from the list. Even after the grants or state monies that the schools receive to operate, about $200,000 of local funds are used to operate them. If those schools can operate within their means and only use the funds given to them by the state, they can continue to operate.”
A group of Macon Early College students spoke to school board members on Monday night to thank them for removing their school from the budget cut list.
MEC Principal Todd Gibbs also addressed the board to ask them to continue funding the school. “I want to ask you to consider keeping MEC in the budget every year,” said Gibbs. “It is not fair to the students of MEC to fear the annual elimination of the program. MEC is not a traditional program, so it needs to be looked at in an untraditional way.”
According to Gibbs, he believes that MEC will be able to operate within the means of the $306,000 state grant in order to continue operations.
“If MEC can live within the means of the state grant, then it will be okay,” said Dr. Duncan. “But it will be a battle every year, with the uncertainty of state funds and the increase in operational costs.”
While February's proposed budget cuts included the elimination of 25 teacher assistant positions at a total savings of $618,077, the revised list has removed that possibility. “We also want to restore the teacher assistant positions,” said Dr. Duncan. “They will, however, be subject to a position freeze and open positions will remain unfilled as much as possible.”
The revised list still includes the absorption of 11 teacher positions. “It is not the easiest thing to do, but it can be done,” said Dr. Duncan. “If you look at the number of teachers for the number of students we have, it is out of whack. We are substantially more staffed than the predominate schools around us.”
By absorbing the 11 teacher positions, Macon County Schools stand to save $470,041. The teacher absorptions would be done based on the state requirement that classrooms have to have a 1:22 teacher student ration. “We have very few classes with more than 18 students, so through some consolidations and rearranging, we can reduce the number of teachers we have without affecting the level of education we offer students,” said Duncan.
The February list of cuts included the elimination of Macon Middle School sports, a $50,000 savings. The revised list has taken that option off the table with Dr. Duncan citing the importance of sports and extra curricular activities to the overall health and success of students.
High school sports known as co-curricular sports, which include non-revenue sports such as wrestling, golf, baseball, softball and others, are still on the list for possible cuts and would save the schools $25,850. The proposed budget cut would only eliminate the school board allotment to fund those sports, not the complete elimination of the sports. By cutting co-curricular out of the school board's budget, it places the responsibility of funding those sports to the individual schools. With 31 sports under the category, Dr. Duncan informed the board that other school districts do not provide an extra line item for co-curricular sports. “The School Board has been extremely generous over the years,” said Dr. Duncan. “I wish that I felt like they could continue to do that, but right now we just can't.” Individual schools will have to use reserves in their athletic budgets to fund the sports. Dr. Baldwin noted that Franklin High School has enough money to fund the sports for some time, but will have to visit each sport and make a decision as funds become thin.
School board member Melissa Evans, who represents the Nantahala District does not believe that raising ticket prices is an option for the school and she is uncertain if Nantahala will be able to fund co-curricular sports on their own.
The budget work session was informational and no final decisions were made. Dr. Duncan met with county staff on Tuesday to discuss the cuts and the school's budget for next year. Board of Education Chairman Jim Breedlove noted that an additional budget work session might be in order before a final budget is sent to county commissioners. The school's final budget is due to the county by April 15.