By Lisa Baldwin- The May Buncombe County school board meeting began with a budget work session and report on school capacity. Presentations by administrators focused on the decline in enrollment and re-drawing attendance lines to better balance school populations.
For the past two years Buncombe’s enrollment has declined. At the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, BCS was down by over 500 students. The NC state legislature is making positive strides in offering parents choices – charter schools, on-line programs and vouchers for private schools when traditional public schools are failing to meet the educational needs of children. The increased competition will force traditional public schools to raise their academic standards. The schools losing the most students to charter schools were Koontz Intermediate School (45), Enka Middle School (43) and Avery’s Creek Elementary (40). Buncombe expects to lose an additional 172 students next year when two of the public charter schools will add grade levels. Invest Collegiate College Preparatory School will add 7th and 11th grades (116 student loss). The Franklin School of Innovation will add 10th grade (56 student loss). Established charter schools include Evergreen Community (grades K-8), ArtSpace (grades K-8) and Francine Delaney (grades K-8).
Tim Fierle, BCS Facilities Director, recommended slightly adjusting school boundaries in the Roberson District. Avery’s Creek is above capacity but the use of modular units allows the school to serve all students. Avery’s Creek ranks number 4 on the list of schools approaching overcrowding, behind North Buncombe Middle School, North Buncombe Elementary and Pisgah Elementary. Fierle proposed moving some Avery’s Creek Elementary students to Estes and Glen Arden Elementary Schools. Ironically, in 2003 about 100 Estes students were moved to Avery’s Creek. More property would have to be obtained if the school board were to add on to Avery’s Creek Elementary.
While I was on the school board it became apparent that what the Roberson District really needed was another elementary school, not a 5th/6th grade intermediate school. The school board should look at the possibility of converting Koontz Intermediate to an elementary school or a 4th/5th grade school to ease Avery’s Creek’s crowding. One problem will be the lack of space for a playground. Koontz has gone from about 810 students in its first year of operation to 683 this year. There was no parent input in the decision to build the school and the administration’s plan was rubberstamped by the school board. Intermediate schools are a band-aid approach to overcrowding, not a long-term solution.
The soon-to-be constructed Enka Intermediate was not thoroughly vetted by the school board. The school board status quo majority would not consider the impact of the two new charter schools located in the Enka district. Now Enka Middle School has the lowest enrollment it has seen in over 15 years. While Enka Middle has brick and mortar capacity for 1,018 students, only 978 are currently enrolled and that number is falling. The new intermediate is being built in an industrial park only a stone’s throw away from public charter school, The Franklin School of Innovation.
Although much new construction is going on in the county, those moving here are retirees from out-of-state and 20-30 year olds from within the state. According to principal John Barbour, Estes Elementary only added 3 students from the Weirbridge Apartment complex.
Fierle also proposed building a new alternative high school on the central office campus. Currently, the Community High School is located in a 1920’s school building in Swannanoa and has about 119 students. Although there is enough land on the current campus to construct a new school, Fierle feels a metal building constructed next to the BCS Central Office would be the best solution.
A vote on redrawing attendance lines in the Roberson District and building a new Community High School will occur at the next meeting. The only opportunity for parents to comment will be at the June 4, 2015 school board meeting.
The superintendent’s proposed budget will increase county spending by $3.1 million. Funding from the state represents 65% of the budget, county funding 27% and federal funding 8%. It is the county’s responsibility to fill any funding gap left by the state and federal government. Property taxes are the main source of county funds for our schools. The percentage of property taxes spent on education in Buncombe has been declining for the past 3 years, from only 43.5% to 41.6% of property taxes. Let’s compare Buncombe’s spending on schools to that spent by our sister school district (same size) in Wilmington (New Hanover County). For the past school year, New Hanover spent $2,640 per pupil in county funds, Buncombe spent $2,116 per pupil. How can New Hanover spend $524 more dollars per student? They did collect slightly more in property taxes but not significantly more than Buncombe. It is a matter of priorities.
Buncombe receives more money for new school construction and capital projects than other school districts due to special legislation. With enrollment in decline, excess construction or school improvement dollars can easily be diverted to teaching and learning if the school board so chooses.
School improvements will be paid for with about $10 million in sales tax dollars. Due to changes in the sales tax laws, it is possible that more money will be available. Although the schools are constantly being maintained and repaired by more than 70 Maintenance employees, roof and mechanical equipment replacement can be costly. In fact the wish list totaled $35 million! An additional $14 million dollars per year pours into debt repayment/construction coffers. The public charter schools don’t receive any money at all for school construction and must fundraise to pay for their buildings.
The school board spent only 14 minutes on school board business, voting on the preliminary budget with no discussion. No one questioned $600,000 in bonuses for principals and pay for employees whose grant money has expired. In spite of a parent’s valid health and safety concerns, the Board rubberstamped spending one-half million dollars on new astroturf at Reynolds High. BCS will operate the indoor Zuegner pool for two years, spending only about $30,000 on repairs.