When the maintenance director for Haywood County Schools received news that a transformer at Pisgah High School stopped working last Thursday, it seemed apropos given the grim portrait of the schools’ budget he and other education officials would paint for county commissioners later that day.
The school system has made a plea to county commissioners to more than triple what it’s getting now for maintenance, repairs and building upkeep. While a sizeable increase, the school system has been barely scraping by in recent years. It’s capital budget was slashed by two-thirds when the recession hit four years ago.
This year, the school system says it needs its former funding levels restored — plus some — to help dig itself out of the maintenance backlog. It needs $839,000, including such critical things as a new bus, roof replacements and emergency sidewalk repairs.
“Most of what we need there is for emergency things that seem to always come up,” said Tracy Hargrove, maintenance director for Haywood County schools.
One of those emergency needs is the $20,000 transformer that failed at Pisgah High School — a cost that the school system had hoped to delay until the next fiscal year.
“We have several projects that are relatively critical that we have been kicking down the road a little bit,” Hargrove said.
Not to mention, the county’s 22 buses are wearing down as the numbers on the odometer quickly tick higher and higher. Bus drivers are sometimes forced to swap vehicles if classes are scheduled to take a field trip as some of the buses fair better than others.
And, next year, schools are projected to receive 53 percent less funding for capital projects than they did in 2008, Hargrove said.
The school system is also dealing with a depleting fund balance, the amount of money it has left at the end of the year that essentially makes up its savings account.
The school system ended the 2010-2011 fiscal year with a balance of $4.2 million. But, funding cuts have since drained that reserve. Officials estimated that the schools will only have anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million leftover at the end of the next fiscal year.
“It will only last a year or so and then we’re in trouble,” said Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte.
Like other departments in the county, schools have been forced to prioritize renovations and improvements and make cuts where they can.
During a meeting with county commissioners last week, Haywood County Schools asked for a total of $14.33 million from the county for the next fiscal year — a more than $1.7 million increase compared to this year. That includes the increase to its building maintenance and repair fund, plus funding for classroom operations, such as teacher salaries.
“I feel like we were very deliberate (when laying out the budget),” said Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools.
Squeezed at both ends
The schools are looking to the county to help make up funding shortfalls at the state and federal level. The state has engaged in a odd funding formula, where it allocates money to schools and then asks for some of it back during the year, called a “reversion.” Reversions are intended for austere budget emergencies, but have become a standard annual practice by the state.
“That is why it is disingenuous,” Mark Swanger, chairman of the board of commissioners, said of the state’s contribution to education.
Education officials have been taking the bulls by the horns when they can because they don’t know what funding they will receive the following year or how much they will have to revert back to the state.
“It’s like Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.
Part of the state’s allocation to schools comes from lottery money. The money is supposed to supplement the schools’ budgets, but many officials have stated that it only supplants funds that the schools should be receiving anyway.
“We haven’t gotten any additional funding since the lottery started,” Nolte said.
Meanwhile, commercials are advertising that lottery money is helping pay for teachers’ salaries. A fact that school officials say is simply not true.
In addition to the loss in federal and state funds, county governments will have to pay for an additional five school days to comply with an unfunded state mandate that increase the number of days from 180 to 185.
“Five days, we have to fund out of our local budget,” Garrett said.
Commissioners did not indicate where they stand on the schools’ request, but will be revisiting the issue soon as the budget for the coming fiscal year is finalized.