With election day just five short weeks away, the Macon County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) held a forum for candidates vying for the open seats on the Board of Commission and Board of Education. County Commission incumbent Bobby Kuppers faced off against challenger Paul Higdon, while Board of Education incumbent Tommy Baldwin squared off against challenger Melissa Evans.
The forum was centered around the candidates thoughts on education in Macon County and ways to continue improving the system to be able to provide the best resources for students. John deVille, vice president of Macon County's NCAE, served as the event’s moderator.
The first question deVille posed to the Board of Education candidates touched on the current shortfall in the school system's operating budget. The school system's budget is public record for any who are interested, and their meetings are also open and the public is invited to attend. “As local media have reported, Macon County Schools recently faced a shortfall of over a half a million dollars for this year's budget,” said deVille. “Some of that shortfall was not entirely foreseeable: The fact that the state increased salaries by 1.2 percent, a benefit increase of 1.1 percent, and an insurance increase of five percent for which the county had to pick up the tab for all positions which are locally funded to the tune of approximately $350,000. Additionally, we recently had to add three classroom teachers at the K-3 level at a cost of about $150,000 which was also, at least in part, unforeseeable. However, adding permanent positions with what was known to be temporary dollars and funding last year's intersessions which were exceptionally expensive, especially given the educational return on investment, do point to questions about managing the foreseeable financial picture.
“What steps would you take to put Macon County Schools on firmer financial ground? What changes would you make in the current approaches the Board takes to maintain financial oversight?”
Baldwin noted that the Board of Education is already actively working to identify areas in the budget that can be cut without affecting jobs or cutting vital programs for students. “What steps would you take to get out schools on firmer financial ground, well we are doing that now,” he said. “We are looking at the budget and the places we can cut, we will cut, but right now the positions that we have are down to bare bones on those positions, because in order to save money in the last three years, when someone retires, we have had to not fill those positions.”
As for the steps Baldwin said he would take in addition to what is already being done by the current board, he said he would look even closer at the budget and make some tough decisions. “I would look at the budget closer and identify where we can gain,” he said. “The changes we need to make to maintain a financial oversight is to look at the budget and determine what we really have to have and what we don't have to have to avoid going over on the budget.”
Evans, who attended the Board of Education meeting in Highlands last month where the budget shortfall was discussed said she was not familiar with the situation. “Well, first off I want to say that I don't have knowledge of what the school board is doing currently with the budget, but I do have a financial background and would love to look at that budget,” she said. “I have some ideas that I would like to put forth, but as far as your information here, I am just going to be honest with you and tell you I wasn't aware of any of the budget up to this point.”
DeVille's first question to the commission candidates touched on the position that County Commissioners have in education.
“What do you believe the county commissioner's role should be in assisting with these financial woes?”
Kuppers began by reading the state statute that legally defines the county's responsibility to the school system, which outlines commissioners' duty to oversee the financial contributions of the school system's capital goods and capital outlay projects. “What we will do is what we have already done,”said Kuppers. “We will link arm in arm with the school board. We will find a way to fix the problem.
“I do not think it is rational to assume that the county can absorb the cuts sent down from a General Assembly that is bent on underfunding education into oblivion,” said Kuppers. “The state is responsible to maintain education, teachers are required to do that and the county is statutorily obligated to maintain the capital outlays of the schools.”
Higdon began by saying he was not just a candidate for county commissioner but was also an advocate for Macon County taxpayers. “The current obligation to the schools from Macon County taxpayers is this,” he said. “The current school related principal and interest related debts for the school system is between $48-$49 million. The annual principal and interest payments on this debt is $5 million and the appropriation to the Board of Education expense fund is about $7 million annually. Considering the nation is over $16 trillion in debt, we are in a deep recession and taxpayers can’t afford to pay any more taxes to fund any more programs. I think we as taxpayers have been generous and have been very supportive of public education.”
Higdon said that according to local media, Macon County Schools' test scores are in the lower half of those in the Western region of the state. “How much more money is necessary and how much more debt do we need to incur to improve these test scores or to improve the student education that is reflected in better test scores? The Board of Commissioners as I view it is simply a funding agency to the school system and the Board of Education is a management entity.”
During Kuppers' response to Higdon's statements he said that he would have to disagree because the commissioners should not be micromanaging the school system. “The Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners work well together and it is important to understand that why we have money invested in our schools,” said Kuppers. “Back when I was younger someone made an investment in me. Someone built a school for me. I think we need to build the schools for our children.”
Higdon responded by saying he agreed with Kuppers about the importance of education for the children. “I agree we have to make those investments, but at what level are those investments,” said Higdon. “I think those investments should be determined by the taxpayers and the sky is not the limit. I think we have made a sizable investment in education, I just don't know how much more we need to do.”
The next questions directed to school board candidates focused on the local allocation of funds for the school system. deVille said, “There are currently 52 positions which are locally funded/paid for by the taxpayers of Macon County. Do you believe all those positions are necessary? Should we be cutting some of those positions? Which positions which you cut first — administrative or classroom — or should we maintain those positions because you feel they are necessary to the mission of the school system? Should we explore the possibility of adding more locally funded positions if we can demonstrate to the county commissioners significant educational gains are likely or that the educational status quo would significantly diminish without such additional positions? Where would you add positions? How would you convince the commissioners and the taxpayers of the essential nature of these additional expenses?”
Evans stated that she believes the school board has done an excellent job making the decision to fund those positions, and if elected, would support retaining all 52 positions. “Look at this question, I think yes, we should maintain those positions,” she said. “I have confidence that the school board has decided these jobs are necessary and I believe that we should give our children the best education possible. So I believe that these positions should stay simply because I have confidence that commissioners and school board have worked together to fill these positions.”
Baldwin explained that the 52 positions that are funded through taxpayers dollars are the lower paid positions, which is a measure he voted for while he was on the school board in order to support and retain teachers and not have to lay off anyone. “All the higher paid positions, we try to put on our state funding because we are trying to save everything we can as far as citizen's tax dollars go in that area,” said Baldwin. “The positions that we have here, I don't see us cutting them. I want the best education that money can buy.”
Baldwin explained that the reason 52 teachers are paid out of local funds is because of the state mandated reversion that places an increased burden on local school systems. “Each year the state sends us the money and then they tell us to send back $1.5 million or $2 million, or however much they ask for that year, and then leave it up to us to decided where that money comes from. We have to decide if we want to keep teachers or keep something else, and we try to keep our teachers for the education of the children in Macon County. We believe in those children, we believe in the county, and we believe that education should be one of our number one priorities.”
The second part of the forum will be featured in the Thursday, Oct. 11 edition of The Macon County News.