By Lisa Baldwin- If you had been at last Thursday’s school board meeting you would have seen a lot of money change hands. But not a dime of it for teaching and learning.
Buncombe County Schools (BCS) has slipped from the 11th largest of 115 NC school districts to the 13th largest after losing more than 1,000 students in the last two years. BCS still ranks as the second largest employer in Buncombe, next to Mission Hospital. With nearly 4,000 employees (Less than half of those are teachers), plus multiple contractors, the school board manages a behemoth budget close to $300 million per year.
Where are your hard-earned tax dollars going?
It was noted at the April meeting that BCS has been overpaying for audits. Alternating between two local accounting firms has not yielded enough competition. The new 2016 contract went to the lowest bidder for $60,000. The bids from two Asheville firms, Dixon Hughes and Johnson Price & Sprinkle (JPS), were nearly double this price. From 2009-2015 Johnson Price & Sprinkle (JPS) held the contract, paying their auditors excessive hourly wages. Note: When serving on the school board in 2014, I tried to postpone the vote on renewing the expensive contract with JPS until we could look into bidding it out but no one would second my motion. It was recorded in the Board minutes, “The vote passed 6/1 with Ms. Baldwin voting against the motion to renew the contract with JPS.”
Astroturf football/soccer field replacements at Owen High and Erwin High Schools will cost $854,200. These two projects were bid out separately instead of as one project even though it is cheaper if like projects are bundled together. No comparison for the cost of grass football fields was conducted. Parents have expressed concerns with the chemicals and carcinogens used in the synthetic turf. The Board approved the astroturf contracts unanimously.
The low bid for the North Buncombe High School Food Lab renovation totaled $857,000 and the Enka High School Food Lab renovation was priced at $295,000. North Buncombe’s Home Economics kitchen renovations will include some professional appliances while the Enka kitchen will have residential appliances. All of this is to train students to be entry-level food service workers for our hospitality industry. Those businesses who stand to benefit from a trained work force – the Grove Park Inn, Biltmore Estate, McDonalds – should chip in. And this is just the beginning of the expensive renovations slated for all 6 high schools. Common Core standards dictate preparing students for workforce jobs, not educating young minds. This is why the N.C. Chamber of Commerce backs Common Core, plus the fact that data management and instructional supply companies stand to make money off of the standards.
The school board asked no questions as they rubber stamped the removal of $1.4 million from the classroom. Monies were removed from the Textbook Fund ($146,196), the Classroom Materials Fund ($250,000) the Academically Gifted Fund ($400,000), Disadvantaged Students ($300,000), and the Limited English Learners ($300,000). This money was then used to pay for “Certified Personnel.” Was this money taken from the classroom to pay for certified central office staff or the dozens of “math and language arts coaches” who “help” teachers with their lesson plans? Is Buncombe continuing to pay for extra teachers who are not really needed as enrollment has declined sharply? The state pays for teachers based on student enrollment numbers.
The school board also approved $860,000 of Lottery Funds for the Discovery Academy “phase III project”. The STEM high school renovations have gone over the original $5.5 million renovation budget, so the board creatively adds “phases.” Since the school is situated right in the middle of the Central Office, one has to wonder what else is being renovated. It has been documented that $88,000 was spent on new furniture for the Child Nutrition Department (school lunch program administrators) when they were re-located due to the STEM high school construction. Now even the Central Office administration hallways have new carpet and paint…what will be next?
It gets worse. The only “Republican” on the school board, Amy Churchill, moved to approve a resolution copied from Organize 2020, a group that endorses Black Lives Matters. The motion was seconded by Cindy McMahon, self-professed “Mama for Obama” and Moral Monday protester. The resolution demanded that the N.C. Legislature “increase per pupil funding and fully fund public schools in North Carolina.” (Organize 2020 is a radical arm of the North Carolina Association of Educators.) There was no discussion and the resolution was approved. Never mind the facts, this was about emotions. The state of North Carolina ranks 11th in the nation and 2nd in the Southeast for state education funding. North Carolina taxpayers spend $8,757 on each student per year. Yet this is not enough for Buncombe. A parent at the meeting pointed out that Buncombe is unique in that it brings in an extra $12 million per year for school construction due to special legislation. Some of this could easily be converted to dollars for teaching and learning; it is a matter of priorities. But the school board’s insatiable appetite for spending on pet projects will never be satisfied. And this was just one month’s spending…