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News Education Budget leaves schools with $1.7 million shortfall

School personnel and school board members traveled to Highlands for the budget discussion that leaves the school system with a $1.7 million shortfall.Monday night, the Macon County Board of Commissioners met in Highlands for its regularly scheduled May meeting. Among items discussed, was County Manager Jack Horton's 2013-2014 proposed budget. By law, Horton must present a balanced budget to commissioners to review as a balanced budget must be approved and submitted to the state by June 18.

With possible state budget cuts to education still to come and the uncertainty of funding sources, the school system was forced to turn to the county in April to request $9,567,455 from county commissioners for the 2013-14 school year; an increase of $2,656,455 from this school year.

According to Horton, while the school system had requested about $9.6 million, in order to continue county operations and to avoid a tax increase, the county would only be able to provide the school system with about $7.8 million, which is a three percent increase from past years.

“Our local school system is facing a crisis in terms of current operational expenses,” said Horton. “The primary responsibility counties have is to provide adequate school facilities and the primary responsibility for the state is to fund operational expenses. Over the past couple of years the school system has tried to maintain an operational level created by stimulus funding and erratic state funding.”

“I was a little disappointed that we were not able to get the funds we requested, but I look forward to future meetings with the county commissioners to finish out the budget process,” said Interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Duncan.

Horton noted that based on the county's spending pattern in the past and without a reduction in expenses, a revenue shortfall of $1,355,539 would require that the county increase property taxes by 1.5 cents per $100 valuation in order to generate the amount of revenue needed to fully fund the school system's request.

The Macon County School system receives funding from three main sources: federal, state and local governments. Federal monies are generally used to fund specific programs in the school system. By state statute, North Carolina is responsible for funding the operational expenses of public school systems, which includes teacher positions. State statute also defines the county's responsibility as being to provide facilities in which the schools can operate.

Horton touted Macon County's dedication to ensuring the local district has state-of-the-art facilities by noting that since 2008, Macon County has committed $45,528,000 in capital funding projects. The projects include improvements and expansion of East Franklin Elementary; contruction of Mountain View Intermediate and Iotla Valley Schools; technology upgrades for the entire school system; and improvements to various other schools in the district.

With a focus on the responsibility to ensure adequate facilities for Macon County students, Horton noted that in addition to the $7.8 million in the proposed budget, the county would also provide the district with an additional $199,035 for capital outlay projects such as an upgrade to the air conditioning system at Macon Middle School.

Despite the county's increased commitment to the school system, the district will have to begin considering areas to scale back. Just last week Interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Duncan informed the school board that he needed to notify 31 first-year probationary and lateral entry teachers that it was uncertain if they would have jobs next year.

Originally, Dr. Duncan had hoped the Board of Education would take action on those 31 positions during the school board's May 28 meeting in Nantahala, but due to the budget news from the county, Duncan noted that decision may be delayed. “Legally, the school board does not have to make a decision on those positions until June 15,” said Dr. Duncan on Tuesday. “At this time, I am not sure what action the board will take on May 28.”

According to Dr. Duncan, a huge portion of the requested budget can be attributed to an anticipated two percent increase in teaching salaries from the state. Last year, in the final hour of the General Assembly, state lawmakers voted to give teachers a two percent pay raise. By the time the pay increase was handed down to local districts, their budgets had already been submitted and approved by the county. To avoid laying off teachers due to budget cuts in the past, Macon County has absorbed teaching positions on the local level. Macon County currently has 54 teachers who are paid for out of local funds. The two percent pay raise mandated by the state did not provide additional funds for teachers paid for out of local funds, but required that they receive the same pay increase. The increase forced the school system to scramble to find appropriate funds to supply the 54 locally paid teachers with the increase.

To avoid the same thing from happening this year, Macon County built a two percent pay increase into the proposed $9.6 million local budget, which amounts to about $440,000. Duncan explained that the state could decide to not give teachers any raise this year, which would reduce the county's budget by nearly $450,000. Horton stated that, the state's erratic funding makes it nearly impossible for the school system to fully prepare a budget.

In the event the county did not fund the school system's full request, the school board had previously identified a list of possible cuts to the tune of $917,159. Possible cuts, which are now being more closely considered, include saving $470,041 through the absorption of 11 teacher interim positions, which is separate from the 31 probationary teachers previously mentioned.

“I trust that in the number of retirements and resignations that we have coming up, we will be able to pick up a number of the positions that would be potentially eliminated, preventing us from needing to do that,” said Duncan.

The list of proposed cuts include line items that are paid for out of local funds. Programs and expenses that are covered in federal and state allotments were not considered as possible reductions because those funds will likely continue and the funding source that is being considered is on the county level.

Additional budget cuts include a $78,000 reduction in local instructional materials, $75,000 in a county office position, and a $61,000 savings in software reduction throughout the system. Board of Education members noted the importance of focusing possible reductions on areas that would not directly impact the educational process or student interaction.

“If we make cuts that I feel like can be made, then go back to the county and show them we have cut everything possible without affecting education, then we will be in a position to work with them. Regardless, we have to open our doors next August 26 and will have to do with a balanced budget presented and approved next month,” said Duncan.

The Board of Education is scheduled to meet at Nantahala School on May 28 to discuss the budget. The Macon County Board of Commissioners has several budget work sessions planned beginning next week on Thursday, May 30, at 5:30 p.m. at the courthouse, when commissioners will meet with the school board regarding the proposed budget.

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