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Buncombe County School Board Watch

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Wouldn’t it be nice to similarly be rewarded for faithfully paying our taxes? At the very least, we want to know our tax dollars are being spent wisely. The Buncombe County commissioners and the school board both have wallets full of our taxpayer dollars. Are they careful with the people’s money? Are they honest in their disclosure of how it is spent? We elect these overseers to do just that. Let’s examine the evidence and see how they’re doing managing our money and prioritizing learning:

The school board met on Oct. 1. Topics covered at the meeting included spending an estimated $2.6 million to renovate the food labs at the six high schools, spending another $2.6 million on computer devices for all fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, and an overview of the school performance grades. Equally interesting is what did not occur at the meeting. No monthly work session – again. Additionally, the Board was mum on the declining enrollment numbers.

Teacher Assistant Cuts – In August, the Buncombe school board cut teacher assistant funding by $600,000 (reducing full-time assistants from eight to seven hours) while setting aside over $600,000 for principal and assistant principal bonuses. The Board also had access to nearly $5 million rainy day funds to keep teacher assistants until the state budget was approved, but chose not to. As expected, the state funded these teacher assistants and also included funding to hire more teachers; in 2016, first grade classrooms will be reduced to one teacher for every 16 students.

Food Lab Renovations – The school board’s long range spending plan approved earlier this year lists equity as a requirement when it comes to athletics and physical education. Whether it’s the $4 million turf and track replacement for our high schools or the $800,000 replacement softball and baseball stadium lighting, equity means every high school gets one. Last week’s school board meeting revealed there is also equity when it comes to Food Labs. Every high school gets a renovated kitchen for Foods I & II classes designed to prepare students for life and for entry-level food service work. But that’s where the equity ends. Some schools are getting more dollars for food lab renovations than others – T.C. Roberson HS $521,102; North Buncombe HS $457,947; Enka HS $457,947; Erwin HS $452,982; Owen HS $312,014; and A.C. Reynolds HS $302,929.

All this while another, even bigger inequity comes to mind. Our highly motivated and high achieving students at the six high schools have no equity when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The current Discovery Academy will only serve around 5 percent of Buncombe’s high school population once it reaches full capacity. In spite of cost overruns, the STEM school has turned out well but serves a privileged few, currently about 2 percent of Buncombe high schoolers, who can get in via the lottery.

Missing from the long range plan is STEM Labs for our six traditional high schools. For example, there are no Project Lead the Way or other robotics/computer programming labs at our six traditional high schools. But STEM Labs in every school is an attainable goal, just like the Food Labs. Consider that a Project Lead the Way lab would only cost $30,000 which includes teacher training. In comparison to the $300,000 price tag estimated for the ACRHS food lab renovation, for example, this would be a small price to pay to advance our students.

The Board has already paid for an architectural “study” of the food labs, now a “Design Team” will be hired (nevermind that BCS has two full-time architects on staff). Money could be saved on the exorbitantly priced food lab renovations and invested in STEM Labs. Why not partner with AB Tech’s Culinary Arts program to teach students food service skills? Community college classes are free for all 16-18 years, thanks to our state legislature. Local restaurants and our hospitality industry – e.g., Grove Park Inn and Biltmore Estate will benefit from the taxpayer funded food lab training. Ask them to chip in and support the program monetarily and with skilled teachers.

Personal Computers for 4th, 5th and 6th graders and Textbook Funding – The school board awarded a Georgia company, Virtucom, $2.65 million for 5,500 Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 11e Touchscreen Convertibles (laptop and tablet in one). This about $385 per device. These should be in the classroom by January, 2016. The next device roll-out will be for 7th, 8th and 9th graders in January, 2017. Tenth – twelfth graders will get devices by January, 2018. The state approved $725,538 in textbook funding for Buncombe and the county approved a little over $1 million for instructional supplies/textbooks. High schoolers are still without many textbooks and if BCS waits for the digital rollout, that will be three years away. According to NCDPI’s CFO, Phil Price, digital books often cost more than hardcover textbooks.

Declining Enrollment Continues – As of September 18, Buncombe schools saw enrollment drop by about 470 students from 25,089 last year to 24,622 in the current year. In total, about 74 percent of all students in Buncombe attend public schools. The latest data is from 2013-14, when 77.9 percent of all Buncombe students attended public school while the state average was 85.5 percent. At the time, two percent of Buncombe students attended charter schools, 9.6 percent attended private schools, and 10.5 percent were home schooled.

These enrollment numbers imply the “build it and they will come” model used by Buncombe County Schools isn’t working out so well. Meanwhile, the Enka Intermediate School (5th and 6th grade) remains under construction while the question persists as to how many students will actually attend it. Last year, Koontz Intermediate was down to 73 percent capacity, having lost close to 150 students since opening in 2011. Apparently, not many parents want their child’s education chopped up into two year segments. Transitions to new schools, parents not vested in a short-term school solution, lack of community and stability are all reasons it isn’t working. Especially when all three existing intermediate schools posted school performance grades below a 70.

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