AshevilleLeslee KulbaLocal News: Asheville and HendersonvilleLocal OpinionOpinion

Commissioners hear funding requests

The budget presentation from Asheville City Schools was more difficult to follow. The PowerPoint presentation shared color photos of children of different races smiling together, but in attempting to find out how much or how much more was being asked of the county, the numbers didn’t add up. Adding to the confusion, the slide entitled, “Funding Requests” listed $2,894,773 in sales tax collections and $9,109,713 in school taxes. The $1,284,928 labeled “requested increase in the county general appropriation and funds to add new programs and positions” left one guessing where the remainder of the $2,296,867 in additional needs, summed from previous slides, would find funding.

Superintendent Dr. Denise Patterson noted the school system was offering a $2000 sign-on bonus for qualified math instructors. That left one wondering what heartless soul would subject sweet children to the burden of understanding math in a world that doesn’t want to hear about it.

Needs highlighted by Patterson included staffing the Montford North Star Academy and Asheville Primary schools to accommodate new students, who were obviously coming from other schools in the system. One hall of the Montford school would be dedicated to students requiring an alternative learning situation. This could include students who need to care for their babies, youth who break a leg and can’t attend regular classes, or children with emotional needs that require intensive counseling. More staffing was needed at Asheville High, too. During her presentation, Patterson frequently fielded commissioner questions about behavioral health issues in city schools.

In addition to teachers, the city schools needed to add social workers, a counselor, a school resource officer, a nurse, and a behavioral assistant. The school must match state mandated pay increases of 4% and 3%, respectively, for certified and non-certified personnel, while keeping up with rising costs for hospitalization and retirement benefits and keeping class sizes below legislated caps. Ongoing capital improvement projects also require funding.

Both Baldwin and Patterson played along with the commissioners’ third strategic priority and spoke of efforts to hire more minorities. Baldwin said the Latino and African-American student populations needed role models, insinuating people of different races cannot learn from one another and thereby reinforcing ancient myths concocted to segregate the brotherhood of man into tribes and silos.

According to the county’s budget document, ACS received a $11,503,729 general-fund allocation last year. While the last budget posted on the ACS web site is for FY 2016-17, last year’s budget, including extensive capital investments, was estimated to be $29.8 million. ACS is projected to begin the year with a $2,858,864 fund balance, compared to BCS’ $10,600,506.

In lieu of a PowerPoint presentation, A-B Tech supplied a necessary-and-sufficient spreadsheet describing the community college’s request for funding increases this year. At $6,500,000, the request was 3.5% greater than last year’s, and it was broken into broad categories with a few explanations. A packet offering greater detail was distributed to the commissioners at the meeting.

While budget information for the last two years for the school is difficult to find online, last year’s county budget allocated $9,057,785 specifically to its capital improvement projects. According to the NC Community College System web site, the school is expected to bring in $10,562,906 from tuition and registration this year. The state would pay $39,565,409 for salaries and curricula plus $40, 437,335 for services like childcare, the small business center, specialized training, and campus security.

At the worksession, President Dr. Dennis King left reporters to their own devices in answering basic questions their readers would certainly ask, and took the post-mathematical approach to budgeting: storytelling. Following a brief introduction, half a dozen people working with the school shared how A-B Tech is advancing the county’s strategic priorities.

Michael Carter, coordinator for the colleges Skills Training Employment Program, told how the STEP program lifts people from poverty. It offers guidance, financial support, compensatory and occupational training, and placement services for persons receiving food stamps, a group Carter calls “the opportunity population.” The program helps participants become proactive in navigating their own way out of poverty, rather than taking the traditional route of labeling and prescribing. He said people thrive when provided opportunity.

Next, King told how, when leaving campus one day, he stopped to see why ambulances had gathered. He learned a student, Stuart Mosely, had been found dead in a campus bathroom, the victim of a heroin overdose. Since then, Mosely’s mother, Anne Seaman, has turned her heartache into a campaign to prevent other mothers from experiencing the same.

She told how AB Tech has since integrated opioid awareness training into the school’s Success and Study Skills course, which is required for all students. The school has also hosted an opioid forum and invested in broadscale advertising. By late summer, the school should be operating a safe space, where opioid users can chat and network without judgment.

Third up was Jennifer Bosworth, chair of the school’s Early Childhood Department. As many of her students come from backgrounds early childhood education strives to eradicate, she is searching for ways to help them work through trauma, dysfunction, poverty, illness, and other issues like young single motherhood, that have traditionally prevented people from pursuing a career path. “Our field and our community need more teachers so that there can be more classrooms so that we can meet the strategic priorities set forth by the county,” she explained.

Following a brief update on the growth and successes of the school’s basic law enforcement training, an adjunct professor spoke excitedly about students’ enthusiasm for innovatively applying sustainability principles, not only inspired by the Sustainability Technologies program, but trickling through everything, including the school’s Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast.

Fire Department Requests

Following the presentations by the schools, the commissioners heard requests for tax increases from the county’s fire departments. Twelve of twenty districts requested increases ranging from 0.80 cents for North Buncombe to 6.50 cents for Fairview, bringing rates from a low of 8.50 cents in Biltmore Forest to a high of 20.0 cents in Barnardsville.

Reasons for the increases included making wages competitive. Chiefs told how embarrassed they were over the low wages they were paying. Swannanoa’s fire department had been referred to as the minor leagues, as its chief trained firefighters to accept jobs in better-paying districts. West Buncombe’s chief said 21 of his 32 employees did not earn a living wage; eight fulltime employees lived outside the county and one outside the state. Skyland’s stressed the importance of having good benefits in a stressful field where 50% of employees are expected to experience at least one disabling injury in the line of duty.

Some stations needed new fire engines, the going rate for one being around $500,000, representing a 500-percent increase over the last 30 years. Grants are available to help, but chiefs said they were very competitive. The recommended useful life for an engine that will be the “first out the door,” is fifteen years, while backup engines can last up to 30 years. One chief said he was the lucky recipient of one of the grants only because all his trucks were over 30 years old, and when he received the grant, he was told he wouldn’t be eligible for another one for some time.

Another reason departments wanted more money was to invest in criteria that would qualify their districts for a better ISO classification, which, in turn, would spell lower insurance rates – for some people on certain policies. This could be achieved by hiring more firefighters and/or building new substations.

Commissioner Mike Fryar wasn’t particularly impressed by Fairview’s request. Building a new substation, he was told, could score better commercial insurance rates. Fryar asked how many commercial establishments were in Fairview, and if the quantity justified increasing rates on all the residents in the district. He was told the better insurance rates could be used to recruit more business to the area. As greater evidence of playing insurance games at the expense of logic, the substation was needed primarily because the second phase of the upscale Southcliff development, but not the first, was going to be a sliver beyond ISO’s five-mile threshold.

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