On Monday, the Macon County Schools' central office was full of teachers concerned with the possibility that the school board could deny the district's educators a two percent supplement provided by the county.
Faced with the potential gaping budget shortfall for the 2013-2014 school year, the Macon County Board of Education (BOE) went to county commissioners asking for permission to grant the local two percent salary bonus that the county has awarded teachers over the last few years. Recognizing that a decrease in funding from the state has forced the school system to completely wipe out their fund balance, commissioners gave the district approval to tap into the supplement money, if needed, with the stipulation that the school board would have to gain approval from commissioners before using the supplement.
Commissioners established a line item of $430,000 for the school system to use as a budget. For all teachers to receive the supplement, the cost to the county would be just over $399,000. The remaining funds would be returned to the county for commissioners to reallocate for other uses in county government.
The fate of the supplement had been in limbo until Monday night. Macon County Exceptional Children's teacher and president of the Macon County Chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators Darlene Fromknecht was the first teacher to speak during the public comment portion, pleading with the BOE to award teachers the entire two percent supplement. “The state of North Carolina has turned its back on education” said Fromknecht. “As you are aware, for the last five years our salaries have been frozen with a meager 1.2 percent raise for the 2012-13 school year. But that increase was based on the same salary we have had since the 2008-09 school year.”
Citing that the cost of living has risen to 13.4 percent since 2008, Fromknecht explained to the board that teachers are, "in reality living on less than we were five years ago.”
“We rank 46th in pay in the U.S. and 44th in per pupil spending and that should matter to you because it is a direct reflection on how important education is to North Carolina citizens,” said Fromknecht. “Repeatedly we have absorbed teacher positions that increase class sizes with less assistants every year with the same expectations from you and the state for student achievement, knowing full well that smaller class sizes equal higher achievement for our students. This year alone, we absorbed 14 teacher positions and eight assistant positions. Monetary savings over the last five years, conservatively are over a million dollars.”
Fromknecht informed the BOE that everything she and her fellow teachers and teaching assistants do is for the students of Macon County. “The teachers and assistants support the students of Macon County and are in the classroom hands-on for and in the best interest of our students. I implore you to support the teachers and assistants and do not take our two percent supplement away,” Fromknecht concluded.
Other teachers echoed Fromknecht's thoughts giving personal examples about how year after year the supplement, which is traditionally awarded in November, serves as many families' Christmas present money or the money teachers's use to travel to visit family over the holidays.
Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin spoke to the issue addressing the original intent behind requesting commissioners to allow the BOE to use those funds for other expenses if needed. “I want to be able to give the entire two percent supplement to teachers right now, and as it stands right now, we are alright financially,” said Baldwin. “But we asked for that money in the event of a disaster or an unplanned event. It is my recommendation that we award one percent of the supplement now, and wait until spring to make sure nothing comes up that might require that money.
Agreeing with the need to be fiscally conservative and prepared for an emergency such as a harsh winter which would require more fuel to heat schools, BOE member Gary Shields made a motion to award teachers with a one percent supplement now and make a determination on the remaining funds in the spring.
The motion failed to garner a second, causing it to fail.
BOE member Stephanie McCall stated that she appreciated Dr. Baldwin's recommendation and understands the need for some sort of safety net, but objected to only giving teachers half. “I know that having one big chunk of money at one time is better, and I am sure our teachers would agree,” said McCall. “I know that I am taking my children somewhere for Christmas and what if my decision here prevents our teachers from being able to do the same with their families.”
McCall informed Baldwin, that she wanted to award teachers the two percent as scheduled in November, and also stated that in the event of a disaster or needing more funds at the end of the year, she would go with Dr. Baldwin to the commissioners to ask for more money.
Dr. Baldwin defended his recommendation by saying while the budget looks okay right now, with no fund balance at all, any emergency would send the BOE to commissioners asking for additional funds just to keep the doors open. “I have a certain degree of comfort to provide the other half of the supplement in the spring, but I still can't promise that,” said Baldwin. “We may end up having to go to the commissioners for the supplement and even additional money after that, we just don't know.”
BOE member Tommy Cabe, who was on the board when they originally lobbied commissioners for the supplement years ago, supported McCall. “I was on the board when we first fought for support for our teachers,” said Cabe. “The supplement we give is still less than surrounding counties and when you fight as hard as we did to get something, it is hard to just give it up.”
Cabe said he, too, was willing to go to commissioners and ask for additional funds if needed. “I don't think they are going to send the kids home,” said Cabe.
In neighboring Jackson County, manager Chuck Wooten said that Jackson County teachers will not be receiving their supplement but will be used for other expenditures.
Shields defended his support of Baldwin's recommendation and informed his fellow board members that while he undoubtedly believes the teachers deserve the entire supplement, the BOE had a duty to protect the people and programs of the school system. “If something were to happen and we were faced without funding to fall back on, we would have to look at sending people home or cutting programs,” said Shields. “Looking down the road, we need to protect people and programs. County commissioners want teachers to have the supplement, just like we want teachers to have it, and I think one percent now is showing good faith that we are trying to maintain the business of school.”
“I may be making this with emotion, but I make a motion that we give all teachers and teacher assistants the two percent supplement as scheduled in November,” said McCall.
On a motion seconded by Cabe, the motion passed 3-1, with Shields casting the nay vote.
Board Chairman Jim Breedlove requesedt that since commissioners had designated $430,000 for personnel supplements and the system only needs $399,000 for teaching supplements, the BOE consider asking the county to give the district the entire $430,000 to give other administrative personnel a supplement for the first time.
Although administrators such as department directors, principals and assistant principals are paid for an additional month of employment while teachers are not, they do not receive a supplement from the county.
Baldwin cited recent examples of losing administrators to neighboring states where a higher pay was offered. “We had an administrator leave here to take a job as a guidance counselor in a different state because of among other personal reasons, higher pay,” said Baldwin.
The BOE consensus was to move forward with exploring avenues to ask the county for the full $430,000.