Baldwin: ‘County needs to help; where’s all the tax money going?’
By Roger McCredie-The Buncombe County Board of Education last week adopted a budget of more than $132 million, all the while looking down the barrel of a significant loss of funding next year.
In 2014 the school system will cease to benefit from federal Race to the Top funding. The effects of sequestration cuts in several areas will also be felt. “We face a tremendous challenge when we lose those funds,” Supt. Tony Baldwin was quoted as saying. “We will have a big, big challenge to fill those funds next year.”
(Race to the Top is a U.S. Department of Education contest, created in 2009, designed to foster “innovation and reforms” in public K-12 education. Its fund awards grants to state schools in four-year cycles. North Carolina received a $400 million grant in 2010.)
Board member Lisa Baldwin, who cast the lone vote against the budget as presented, said she doesn’t see why, given other available resources, such a crunch necessarily needs to happen, or why measures to meet it are not being taken right now. In particular, she said, the school board should be requesting additional funds from the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
“I’m voting against this budget because the county is not supplying enough money, and because we’re not looking at enough cost-saving measures,” Baldwin said. She compared Buncombe County’s $53 million in school allocations to $67.3 million in New Hanover County, whose county seat is Wilmington and whose school district is comparable in size to Buncombe’s, according to Baldwin. “Many other counties also receive low-wealth monies from the state, but not Buncombe, because we have such a large tax base. This means the county should be making up the difference.”
Tony Baldwin defended the board’s budget structure, noting that Buncombe County Schools rank 85th out of 115 state school systems “in terms of funding that’s available to us [from federal and state sources].” I think it’s remarkable that we’ve been able to come out with these results.”
“Dr. Baldwin is once again bragging that Buncombe County Schools can continue to do more and more with less and less,” an Asheville Cittizen-Times reader commented. “He’s absolutely wrong. Ask any school teacher in this county and in this state what the true ramifications have been with starving our public education.”
As to savings, Baldwin said, “The Asheville Tribune uncovered and reported that principals and assistant principals get [a total of] $589,000 in extra duty pay each year. That’s $12,000 per year for high school principals. But teachers do not get extra pay. Other counties like Alamance, CMS [Charlotte/Mecklenburg Schools] and Wake have given their teachers bonuses using county dollars.
“We don’t have to raise taxes to do this; we need to focus existing funds on the classroom. I have suggested cost saving measures to district officials for two years in a row only to be ignored; at Thursday’s meeting I suggested merging our maintenance and facilities departments as Cabarrus County schools did a few years ago,” she said.
Baldwin also took aim at the schools’ Child Nutrition Department, saying it “went on a spending spree, buying $88,000 in new furniture.” Citing the lunch price hike passed by the Board in June, she said, “Why raise lunch prices when the money is spent so frivolously? I feel like it’s a burden on the working poor.”
At last week’s meeting freshman school board member Amy Churchill said she didn’t advocate going to county commission with a request for additional funds at this time. “I see our true emergency as next year when we lose those federal funds. I just don’t see this year as being the year we should be coming to the board of commissioners,” she said.
“The county has a $50 million ‘undesignated fund’ balance just sitting there,” Baldwin said. They’re supposed to be able to go to that if they have to in order to help the schools. The school system has an emergency fund, too. All this talk about shortfalls and losing federal money, and that money just sits there.”
County Commission Chairman David Gantt told the Tribune commissioners “are always ready and willing to listen” to any request put forward by the school board. “The time frame doesn’t matter, we’re here for them all the time,” he said. “We are in constant contact with Dr. [Tony] Baldwin, [BOE chairman] Bob Rhinehart and their staffs and they keep us up to date on where they are and what they need,” he said. “I don’t think playing to the media is necessarily the best way to go to get something done.
“Buncombe County gives Asheville city schools more than the state of North Carolina does,” he added.
A Forsyth County teacher, commenting on coverage of the Buncombe school board budget, said, “My question…what percentage of those millions are ACTUALLY going to directly help the school teachers in the schools that are almost last in pay in the country, have some of the highest amount of impoverished students to teach, and help with the resources that are lacking in their classrooms??? How about teaching 34 high school students with 30 desks, 20 textbooks, and non-working computers?”