School board watch: misplaced priorities

December 11, 2014 Asheville , City - County Gov. , Columnists 3445 Views
School board watch: misplaced priorities

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When the public puts blind trust in the representatives it elects to oversee the education of our children, it can be a risky endeavor. Citizens play a critical role in the educational process, advocating for necessary reforms to our public system of education. This may involve studying the issues, writing letters to the editor, or emailing and calling school board members and legislators to ask questions and give input.

School Board 101

At the most recent school board meeting, December 1, 2014, new board members, Cindy McMahon (Reynolds District) and Max Queen (Enka District) and eight-year school board veteran Pat Bryant (Erwin District) took the oath to uphold the N.C. and U.S. Constitutions, and “to execute the duties of the office of the Board of Education for Buncombe County, according to the best of my skill and ability, and according to law.”

Under NC law (General Statute 115C-40), school board members “shall have general control and supervision of all matters pertaining to the public schools…and they shall execute the school laws in their units.” The school board sits at the top of the organization chart and the superintendent takes direction from the board. The board makes changes to and approves the superintendent’s annual budget. The board may hold a public budget hearings. Only the board can enforce laws affecting school operations and make district policies.

At the December meeting, Ann Franklin (North Buncombe District) was elected Board Chair and Ben “Chip” Craig (Owen District) was re-elected Vice-Chair.

Wants Vs. Needs

At the December meeting, the board unanimously approved $9.5 million for 2014-15 capital projects. Board member Craig asked if that money would carry over until the next fiscal year if not used. Buncombe County Schools CFO said “yes.” What the CFO failed to remind Craig of was that there was already $6 million sitting in the BCS capital project fund, projected to reach $20 million in 10 years. This raises the question of whether maintaining a $6 million undesignated fund balance in the BCS capital project account is prudent when the classroom is not fully funded. Add another $12 million coming in annually for school construction/debt repayment. (Construction funds from Article 39 sales taxes are unique to Buncombe and can be made flexible by the state legislature if asked.) And don’t forget the $5 million emergency fund. Did you know the county also keeps a $50 million emergency fund BCS can access, double that which is required?

Capital project funds come from a portion of the sales and use taxes. However, the Local Government Commission, located in the state Treasurer’s Department, can give Buncombe County permission to use the $9.5 million, or a portion of it, for other school district expenses. The simple process to free up this money for teaching and learning is found in NC General Statute 105-487. Buncombe already has a 70+ Maintenance Staff skilled in HVAC, electrical, plumbing, carpentry, etc. keeping things running.

Misinformation and Misplaced Priorities

In a recent Asheville Citizen-Times article, “Administrator Extra-Duty Pay Questioned,” Buncombe Schools spokesman Donnie Porter referred to a chart compiled by WRAL-TV, Raleigh, ranking Buncombe County 43rd in supplemental principal pay. However, Porter, along with ACT reporter, John Boyle, failed to inform readers the chart, created from NC DPI data, did not include extra-duty pay bonuses. If these bonuses had been included, the average supplemental/bonus pay going to Buncombe principals would be double what was reported – $14,752 per principal – moving Buncombe principals closer to the top of the chart of 115 school districts for their supplemental/bonus pay.

But regardless of whether, or how much, other school districts pay in extra duty bonuses to principals and assistant principals, at this crucial time of reduced classroom funding, the question of priorities remains. Why would Buncombe pay more than $4.5 million in administrator bonuses (since 2007) even when teachers’ salaries were frozen and when we can’t afford to budget monies for textbooks and instructional supplies for our classrooms?

The Bottom-Line

The bottom line in Buncombe is – the classroom comes last…Schools have excess capacity (3,000 empty desks) yet we’re borrowing $25 million to build a new school. Plus, district enrollment is down by over 500 students! Plans are to spend $2.1 million for new football field astroturf, $700,000 for re-paving of five parking lots, close to one-half million for a state-of-the-art tennis court, and $200,000 for new employee vehicles, while parents and students must engage in excessive fundraising for basic teaching tools and classroom instructional materials. Instead, let’s advocate for STEM academies in our existing high schools, transformational computer initiatives for all of our students allowing them to work at their own pace and personalized learning plans for each child (“equal educational opportunities” that the NC Constitution demands of our school board.) Maybe we can tolerate a few potholes in the pavement in exchange for a state-of-the-art education.

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