Facing a massive budget shortfall, school leaders asked for a funding increase of $1.5 million from the county — a 22 percent increase compared to last year’s funding from the county of $6.9 million.
But the county’s proposed budget calls for a far more modest increase of only $200,000. That recommendation was included in a draft budget presented to commissioners last week by County Manager Jack Horton.
If Horton’s draft budget stands, the school system will need to dig deep and cut its way out of a roughly $1.3 million hole.
“I was not surprised, but I was disappointed at the initial amount placed in the budget,” said Superintendant Jim Duncan. “It’s not enough to cover what we need to have to start school.”
The preliminary budget could be altered yet by commissioners during a series of budget meetings in the coming month. The county will also hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 11, at the Macon County Courthouse before voting on a final budget, which won’t take effect until July 1.
Duncan is hoping the commissioners will be swayed to inject more into the school system for the coming year — another $200,000 at the very least. Another $400,000 would avoid the deepest cuts.
The school board waffled in recent months over how much to ask the county for. At first, the school system formulated a list showing what a full suite of cuts would look like — eliminating teachers’ assistants, assistant principals, middle school sports and the early college program, plus moving to bigger class sizes.
Then a second list was floated showing what $900,000 in cuts would look like — in hopes the commissioners would make up the difference between the more severe list of cuts and the scaled-down cuts.
Duncan suggested the county could dip into its large fund balance, which stands at about $18 million, to help the schools.
“I don’t consider it a dead issue at this point,” Duncan said. “But if there’s no movement — it’s going to be a big adjustment, and it’s not going to be pleasant.”
If commissioners can’t be swayed to, at the very least, meet the school halfway and avoid the entire $1.3 million shortfall, Duncan said the situation could become serious.
One option on the table is cutting the local salary bonus that Macon teachers get.
Many counties tack a supplement on to teachers’ pay over and above the base state salary. Duncan said targeting the $400,000 in county supplements would not be popular — considering the North Carolina ranks one of the lowest in the country for teacher salaries — but may be necessary if no more money is given to the schools.
“I’d rather have the teachers higher paid,” Duncan said. “But if I don’t have enough teachers to cover the classrooms, that’s a moot point.”
After seeing the county manager’s proposed budget, county Commissioner Jimmy Tate said he’s not sure the school will get any more funding. Commissioners had already agreed earlier this year that they would not raise taxes, even to save the school budget. A tax increase of 1.5 cents would be necessary to fund the schools’ full request.
The preliminary budget already foregoes adding more than a dozen county positions requested by various departments, including deputies, paramedics and information technology staff. However, as the budget talks take place, Tate said he’d like to see what else can be done for the school system.
“If we are able to find any other funds in our budget, I would like to see it go toward education,” Tate said. “No doubt.”
The county has been no stranger to school spending in recent years. During the past five years, the county has funded more than $45 million in construction projects and improvements.
Neither has the county been a stranger to other spending requests in recent months. Commissioners have approved large-ticket spending requests to purchase land for baseball fields, emergency cardiac defibrillators and more than $750,000 in added annual expenses for employee raises.
County Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin, who formerly served on the school board, said his vote will back giving the schools least what the Horton suggested, if not more. Corbin said with conservative revenue projections, more money might become available at mid-year as well.
But he said it was unrealistic to think the county could come up with the money to make up the entire school budget shortfall, while holding true to its commitment not to raise taxes. Furthermore, the county is already taking $1.6 million out of its fund balance for next year’s budget. That makes the prospect of drawing even more from the county’s reserve fund for the school system unlikely, Corbin said.
“It’s a tough budget year,” Corbin said. “It’s not realistic without raising taxes, and we already said were unwilling to do that.”