Local News analysis
By Lisa Baldwin- At the November Buncombe County Board of Education meeting, the board voted 6-1 to approve a final $244 million budget. Unfortunately, this budget was largely developed by administrators working behind closed doors, without public budget hearings or input from teachers, parents, taxpayers or even the school board. This underscores the ongoing need for increased transparency and stakeholder input in the Buncombe County School System.
Eight years ago, the school board approved higher bonus pay for school-based administrators. Since that time, $4.7 million has been doled out to principals and assistant principals for attending extracurricular events. This breaks down to about $600,000 paid out per year. There is no accountability for these bonuses; e.g., a flat rate of $1,000 per month is paid to high school principals, even in the summer when there are fewer events to attend.
Worse, these bonuses have even been paid at times when teachers’ salaries remained frozen. Principals and assistant principals already receive supplemental and longevity pay in addition to their base salary. If these “extra duty” bonuses were reported to the Department of Public Instruction, Buncombe would most likely rank the highest in administrative supplemental pay in the state.
Textbook Funding Slashed
According to the 2014-15 Budget Resource Document handed out at last Thursday’s school board meeting, per a request from Buncombe principals, “53 percent of the State Instructional Supply allotment was given up in order to keep more custodians and clerical staff employed.” On top of this, the Buncombe County School Superintendent has cut county funds to textbooks and classroom materials by $800,000 over the past three years, from $1.9 million to $1.1 million. Is the school system an employment agency first and an educational institution second? Many districts have contracted out for custodial services, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. Isn’t this a cost-saving measure worth exploring?
According to the most recent North Carolina Department of Public Instruction data, our state ranks 11th in the nation for the highest percentage of K-12 education funding from state revenue. NC also provides two additional funding streams to school systems whose ability to generate local tax revenues is below the state average. There are 78 school districts that receive “low wealth” state funding. Plus twenty-seven county school districts receive the small county supplement because their school district has less than 4,000 students and the property tax base is below the state average. Buncombe doesn’t qualify for either funding stream.
This is why Buncombe County Schools (BCS) ranks 96th in state per pupil expenditures (NC DPI’s latest data from 2012-13). The expectation is that the county will bring us up to normal funding levels but this is not occurring. Statewide, BCS ranks 34th in county per pupil expenditures; however, as the 11th largest school district, BCS should have similarly ranked county funding.
When will the school board and county commission start seeing education as an investment in economic development? The return on an investment in education is high compared with the return on money invested in human services/welfare. Since 2013, Buncombe County has increased spending on Human Services by 21 percent while increasing education spending (BCS, ACS and AB Tech) by a mere two percent. In fact, AB Tech’s budget was reduced by $2 million when the new sales tax hike took effect. Where did this $2 million go? Why is the county commission sitting on a fund balance (money in the bank) nearly double what is required by state law? NC requires counties to keep eight percent of their operating budget in this fund but Buncombe County is sitting on 15 percent. Why does Buncombe’s Human Services funding represent 35 percent of the budget and Education only 28 percent? Now the county wants to spend $43 million on a new Human Services Building. Misplaced priorities are hurting our children and our potential for economic development. An educated workforce is necessary for prosperity in Buncombe.
Last minute adjustments were also made to the contract for the Enka Intermediate School construction, pushing the completion date to July, 2016. The cost of construction has not been determined due to selection of the General Contractor based on qualifications rather than a bidding process. This process is known as Construction Manager At Risk (CMAR). A guaranteed maximum price for the work will not be ready until after the subcontractor bids come in to the CMAR. Although this process is allowed, it is not desirable for government entities as all negotiating power has been forfeited. The two Asheville City schools also using the CMAR process are the most expensive in the state
Lisa Baldwin is an economist, wife and mother. She received the John Locke Foundation’s James Knox Polk Award in 2012 for her leadership in public service on the Buncombe County Board of Education.