By Lisa Baldwin- As summer winds down, much to my dismay, I look at my flower and vegetable gardens and see a jungle. Recent rains and summer vacations have led to an increase in the number of weeds taking over!
This is not unlike the feeling I had when attending the August school board meeting. In order to cultivate the beautiful flowers in the Buncombe County School Board’s garden of priorities, weeds need pulling! Let’s begin by digging into that August school board meeting. Just think, if parents and citizens attended these meetings, the school board would be too embarrassed to continue making spending decisions that negatively impact our children’s education. Put another way, we need more gardeners tending the weeds!
Flower: 168 third graders participated in summer reading camps sponsored by the state. Last year’s testing showed over half of Buncombe’s third graders were not reading at grade level. Now these students are getting the extra help they need.
Flower: Buncombe had 113 new applicants for the 2015-16 opportunity scholarships ($4,200 each), also known as vouchers for private schools, the 10th highest number in the state. NC’s goal is to have the money follow the child, giving all students educational choices. This is a win-win situation for both public and private schools. As competition increases, academic rigor will increase. The voucher program also saves the public schools money (Buncombe spends an average of $8,700 per child) and reduces the need to build new facilities.
Buncombe scholarship applicants: Temple Baptist School had 28 applicants, New City Christian School had 19, Rainbow Mtn. Children`s School in Asheville had 13, Asheville Christian Academy had 10, Avonlea Learning Community in Weaverville had 9, Providence Christian Academy in Asheville had 6, New Classical Academy in Asheville had 4, North Asheville Christian School in Asheville had 3, Azalea Mountain School in Asheville had 1, Carolina Day School had 1, Mount Pisgah Academy in Candler had 1, Odyssey Community School in Asheville had 1.
Flower: Buncombe’s 4th, 5th and 6th graders will get their own laptops (5,500) in January. Barry Pace, BCS Technology Director, said “We’re not on the cutting edge [27.7% of NC school districts already have one-to-one laptop programs] but we’re on the developing edge.” BCS has a plan and will get computer devices in the hands of all students over the next few years. The infrastructure is ready; every classroom now has a wireless access point.
Weed: Over $800,000 in spending was unanimously approved by the school board for new stadium lights. Maintenance Director Gregg Fox recommended replacing all stadium lighting with one of the top systems, although he acknowledged that some of the lighting did not need replacement. He said there was a “cost saving” to doing it all at once.
Weed: The school board voted unanimously to support a resolution cutting 200 instructional assistants from 8 hours to 7 hours per day. Mr. Pat Bryant made this motion. This cut was due to a possible $600,000 decrease in state funding. However, the school board didn’t mention that the possible reduction of funding was due to the state Senate’s goal of hiring over 3,000 more teachers in NC. The NC Senate’s budget proposes reducing class sizes in kindergarten and first grade to 15 students.
Board member McMahan said “the school board meetings sometimes feel bipolar”; we talk about funding computers for students but then we can’t fund teacher assistants. She asked Superintendent Baldwin to explain to the public. He said there’s one pot of money for operational purposes and another pot of money for capital expenses. What he or McMahon failed to mention was the flexibility of those funding pots.
Flower: Buncombe could fund teacher assistants, instructional supplies and textbooks in several ways: 1) Use money from the school district’s rainy day fund or the county’s fund which tops out at nearly $50 million dollars. 2) Send a request (or resolution) to the Local Government Commission in the state Treasurer’s Office to move capital funds to support educational needs. 3) Ask our state representatives to sponsor a local bill that will increase the flexibility of construction funds (these sales tax dollars amount to $12 million per year for BCS!) 4) Re-evaluate administrator bonuses totaling more than $600,000!
Flower: Enka High teacher, Donald Witsell cares so much that he gave public comment asking for more alternative education programs to help our failing students. In and out-of-school suspensions are not the answer; many students miss 30 or more days of school. With intensive intervention these students with serious life issues could pass. Last year a student who had missed 30 days for discipline reasons brought a handgun and 2 magazines of ammunition to Enka High but was thwarted. A teacher was seriously injured in a May 2013 fight and a student was nearly pushed off a 20 foot high ledge. The state has documented that over the past five years, Buncombe Schools has had the most crime and violence, on average, of any school district in NC!
Weed: The school board discussed limiting parents’ rights to voice concerns over controversial instructional materials. They will vote on policy revisions at the September 3rd meeting.
The only hope for weeding out anything that gets in the way of our schools’ focus on education is more gardeners; i.e., more people paying attention and speaking up for our children. Asking for the conversion of capital funds to education dollars is the first step in improving academics, particularly as Buncombe faces its third year of declining enrollment. The School Board has been entrusted with a huge responsibility for the education of our future leaders, neighbors and co-workers. Please hold them accountable!