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Fryar, Frost Pay Attention in Budget Meeting


City & County Schools –

The office of Superintendent Tony Baldwin requested $3,644,627 over last year’s appropriation of $60,388,785 for both Asheville City and Buncombe County schools. How much goes which way is dependent upon how many children enroll in charter schools. Speaking before the commissioners, Baldwin told how a financial crisis in the schools in 2009 had been staunched with a flood of federal funding. “The cavalry came in,” he said, and “now the cavalry is retreating.” Federal funding peaked in the 2010-2011 school year, comprising 20 percent of the county’s budget. More recently, it has only constituted 7-9 percent. Baldwin flattered the commissioners with statistics, showing of 115 North Carolina school systems, Buncombe County Schools ranked 91st in state funding and 95th in federal funding, but 30th in local funding.

Baldwin, as he did last year, told of the frustration imposed by unreasonable state guidelines. General statutes require the school systems to prepare their budgets by May 15, but the legislature is slow to tell the districts how much funding it will be making available. Normally, the schools have the governor’s budget and a budget from either the house or the senate to assist with ballpark estimates. This was not the case this year.

All they had was the governor’s budget, and it did not provide for state assistance with driver’s education. Currently, parents pay $50 per student for the service. Without government subsidy, the cost would rise to $250. Another state impact anticipated is what Baldwin referred to as an across-the-board $2000 bump in pay for classified and certified personnel. If the state raises the salaries for the teachers it payrolls, Baldwin considers it only fair for teachers doing the same work but paid by the county to be compensated equally. Costs for benefits are also increasing. Baldwin said his administration typically tries to meet budget by cutting nonhuman costs, but that has not always been possible. Since 2009, 167 positions have been cut. Fortunately, most persons affected have found placement elsewhere in the school system, but hours for various assistantships have been trimmed. Baldwin said requests for program funding were maintenance only. It would be nice, however, if when pilot programs proved successful, the school system would have the resources to offer them district-wide.

The state has further mandated technology upgrades for the schools. Except for the costs, Baldwin is wholly onboard with the idea. He is frequently in touch with business people, and they tell him what graduates need for the digital, global economy. Baldwin said computers in the schools now look like Apple Land, but any corporate interest he talks to says they use Microsoft. They also tell him they need STEM-savvy personnel. Baldwin hopes the district will soon provide each student with his own digital device. Already, Buncombe County Schools has been able to establish the necessary infrastructure with unassigned lottery funds. Pointing out that the commissioners all had digital devices in front of them, Baldwin said it would be easy to defer the investment each year for the next thirty budget cycles.

Baldwin called attention to Community High School, which will soon need capital improvements. Built in 1923, the old Swannanoa High School is in need of multimillion-dollar renovations. In PC tones that are more stigmatizing than frank language, he mentioned the school “saves lives.” Commissioner Ellen Frost echoed his praises and concerns. For example, the teenage moms need an elevator when they are late-term. Frost stumped Baldwin when she asked why the school has had the same allocation throughout the years when the rest of the line items have increased. County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene explained the costs of teachers were in the district-wide teacher line items, and so forth. Frost and Holly Jones thought it would make sense moving forward to list the totality of that school’s expenditures separately.

The request from Asheville City Schools, presented by Superintendent Dr. Pamela Baldwin, paralleled that of Buncombe County Schools. Exceptions were a request for $50,000 for an assessment of infrastructural needs at Asheville High, built in 1929, and $70,707 for expanding programs for three and four year olds. Asheville Schools continues construction on the new middle school and Isaac Dickson Elementary. Almost $2 million had to be added to the budget for “costly and unexpected debris issues encountered during construction” of the latter.

A-B Tech –

The next presentation came from A-B Tech. The college’s president opened saying, “Good evening. For those who don’t know me, my name is Dennis Baldwin.” Actually, it’s Dr. Dennis King, but with Lisa Baldwin talking about education budgets during the public comment period, he was, in the words of Chair David Gantt, “left out.” In his windup before the pitch, King told the commissioners A-B Tech was a great economic development tool. This year, it would issue 950 credentials. Graduates this semester included 78 nurses, 14 auto techs, 12 bakers, 14 brewers, 4 machinists, 11 cosmetologists, 20 chefs, 13 dental hygienists, 15 paramedics, 9 medical assistants, 15 medical lab technicians, 8 sonographers, 11 pharmacy techs, 8 radiographers, 7 search techs, and 11 webmasters.

King then told some stories to put faces on his proposal. One student held up was Stella Galyean. The child of an addict, Stella dropped out of school in the sixth grade, got married at 13, had five kids by the time she was 20, and escaped an abusive marriage. One of her children asked if she would graduate high school before her, and mom was off. She got her GED from A-B Tech, enrolled in the college transfer program, survived an ordeal with cancer, became president of the school’s honor society, and won the Dallas Herring Award for achievement, among other awards and scholarships.

King then asked for $2,348,740 for operational costs and facilities maintenance. “Due to aging facilities,” King’s report read, “repairs are consistently running about $300-400,000 annually,” an amount $150,000 more than was budgeted last year. Electricity costs would grow when the new buildings come online. Estimates ran at $852,400 for the Allied Health building, $75,000-100,000 for the Multipurpose building, and $25,000 for the lights and elevator in the parking deck. Over a million dollars, he said, was needed for repairs and renovations. He singled out the Sunnicrest building, whose 120-year-old façade was “rotten.” Other areas needing attention were leaky roofs, walkways, signage, alarm systems, and data fiber infrastructure. King said if the college did not get its requested funding increases, it would cut maintenance and campus police staff.

Capital improvements to be funded in the near term include a second egress, since Victoria Road probably couldn’t handle a mass evacuation of 5000 people during operating hours. A building is sought in south Buncombe County, near the airport, to house a complete aviation training program; having a self-contained program on a satellite campus would open state revenue streams. The most spectacular investment, though would be converting the Rhododendron building to an engineering building when the medical programs shift to the Allied Health building. The first floor would house a cosmetology department, and a barber training program would open as the first in the state west of Winston-Salem.

Commissioner Mike Fryar called to question some of the numbers in the college’s capital master plan. It seemed as if the architectural firm had merely gone down the list of the county’s estimates for renovating campus buildings and added a 1 in the ten millions place. The cost of remodeling the Rhododendron building went from about $3 million to $13 million, and renovations for the Elm building went from about $8 million to $18 million. Work on the Enka campus went from about $6 million to $16 million.

The county had estimated costs of construction in 2013. That was when the quarter-cent tax increase was narrowly approved in a referendum replete with allegations of impropriety, among which were discoveries of the use of college space and college communications for campaigning. Then president Hank Dunn came under fire for proposing an $83-million construction plan, which included a plush president’s office in a new $52 million building with an auditorium large enough to hold 800. Answering to taxpayers – but also concerned about the feasibility or recovering costs by renting an auditorium for non-educational purposes that could jeopardize the college’s tax-exempt status – the county received special permission from the state legislature to seize control of the project. An email from around the time records Dunn as telling Greene, “I am not a happy camper.” Among other trimmings, the auditorium and office were slashed from the Allied Health blueprints to bring that project’s cost down to about $32.2 million. Overruns took it to $39 million. Back to the current request, Fryar said of the overage, “That number is way, way out of respect.”

“I agree, said King in an instant. “I was actually kind of shocked at some of the numbers that the architects put in for these projects, both construction and renovation.” After explaining the inevitability of huge uncertainties in later forecasts, he reiterated, “Even at that, I do agree with you. I think the numbers are kind of high. There is no reason why immediate needs should cost us that much to renovate Rhododendron and Elm.”

District Attorney –

DA Todd Williams asked first for continued funding for three jail diversion employees, totaling $192,983. The county started funding the positions back in 2007 when former DA Ron Moore obtained state approval to expedite prosecutions of felonies that involve no acts of violence. Williams explained it costs $107 a day to house an inmate. He went through the stages of prosecution, most of which added about a month to the process. By allowing persons arrested on certain felonious charges to plea bargain, Williams estimated Moore’s program has saved the county about $1.1 million a year in housing costs.

Williams then requested funding for five positions lumped under the category of “Domestic Violence.” To justify the need, he read national statistics from the county’s” eNOugh” web site. He said the courts had to triage the cases they would hear, and victims are not receiving enough support. “The chief cause of dismissals is chief prosecuting witnesses aren’t showing up,” he said. Funds requested in this category totaled $461,594, but Frost asked why $101,088 for a dedicated benefits fraud prosecutor was listed under “Domestic Violence.” Williams said the caseload might not justify a fulltime fraud prosecutor, and so the hire could serve as a “catchall,” a “special treatment court prosecutor” in an “omnibus position.”

Fryar, too, had questions. Williams had said Moore’s plea program had brought the population in the Buncombe County jail down from almost 700 to around 400. Fryar asked Major Glen Matayabas, who oversees the county’s Detention Bureau, what the jail’s capacity was. It was 604. Fryar then asked why, if it cost $107 a day to house prisoners, the county was accepting $78 from the federal government and $40-50 from other counties to house their prisoners. Greene explained the $107 amount included fixed and variable costs, and nobody had separated them. Fryar challenged Williams’ presentation as leading the public to believe all costs were variable. This agitated Jones, who assuming the bulk of the costs were fixed, did not appreciate Fryar insinuating there was an error in the numbers. “I’d rather just listen to these numbers. If we have questions, we can ask them offline. I don’t want to put our presenters in some awkward position that doesn’t seem very fair,” she said.

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