Displaying items by tag: budget cuts

MANNA FoodBank will close its Franklin distribution center by October, putting three part-time employees out of work as the agency moves to streamline its system and cut overall operating costs.

Cindy Threlkeld, executive director of the Asheville-based nonprofit, blamed rising food and fuel costs and potential threats to federal funds the agency relies on. MANNA’s distribution center in Franklin served as a clearinghouse and pass-through point for food supplies bound for “partnering agencies” in the western counties for 20 years.

Franklin headquarters the only branch office of MANNA, located on Depot Street.

The nonprofit had to make hard decisions about how to maintain the same level of service while cutting costs, Threlkeld said.

“We are fully committed to providing the same level of service, or even more,” she said. Online ordering was already used by most of the 250 agencies that tap MANNA’s food stores across a 16-county service area.

MANNA FoodBank Board Member Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table in Sylva, said the online system works well. She said the agencies that haven’t made the transition yet seem to understand the difficulties faced by MANNA, “and people seem OK with it. Everyone is having to make hard choices right now.”

But MANNA will still need a pick-up point, a centralized location somewhere in the western counties where pallets of food can passed off to agencies. Threlkeld is currently hunting for such a site. It will not be a formal distribution center, however, such as the one in Franklin. The phase-out of the Franklin center will start in September, Threlkeld said.

On a more positive note, MANNA’s executive director said a couple in Henderson County has donated the entire production from a 5-acre orchard, contingent on MANNA handling the harvesting. Threlkeld said she foresees the agency ending up with some 150,000 pounds of apples, raising possibilities MANNA could trade apples with another food agency for other supplies.

A state teacher-training center based in Cullowhee has slashed half its workforce in the fallout of a nearly 50-percent budget cut by the General Assembly.

The N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching went from a state-funded budget of $6.1 million to $3.1 million.

The 25-year institution, which is credited with helping the state to retain teachers by inspiring them through professional development, had 82 full and part-time workers. Thirteen of those are based at NCCAT’s smaller campus in Ocracoke. The final stay-or-leave numbers for that campus are still in flux.

But in Cullowhee, 22 fulltime positions and 11 hourly-contracted positions were eliminated. Additionally, three workers opted to go from fulltime positions to three-quarter time positions, and eight vacant positions are not being filled. Total, including Ocracoke, 35 to 40 positions are being eliminated.

Linda Suggs, chair of NCCAT’s board of trustees, said in a news release that NCCAT will be reorganizing and shifting resources to best serve the teachers and schools of North Carolina.

“This is an opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves while remaining true to our vision of advancing teaching as an art and a profession,” Suggs said at a recent joint meeting of the NCCAT Board of Trustees and the Development Foundation of NCCAT. “We can still impact a large number of teachers with this budget.”

Elaine Franklin, executive director of NCCAT, said a budget cut of this magnitude made a reduction in the size of the organization unavoidable. The organization hopes to raise more in private funds and grants to help offset the losses. NCCAT’s new model will be characterized by a move toward greater diversity in terms of programming content, sources of funding and use of resources, she said.

“During this fiscal year, we will be transitioning to a new model for delivering NCCAT’s mission,” Franklin said.

By reducing the number of week-long residential seminars, where teachers from around the state travel to NCCAT to participate, the center will bring training directly to schools to provide a greater degree of outreach, Franklin said.

“Our goal is to maintain NCCAT’s reputation for high-quality professional development programs and services,” Suggs said, “but to do so in a way that is fiscally sound and supported by educational policy in the twenty-first century.”

— By Quintin Ellison

When SmartStart, an early childhood education program, was launched in 1993, it was hailed nationally as a model for reaching children during those critical early development years before kindergarten. This, said educators, was the way to give kids a good foundation for lifelong learning.

The idea was to bring in parents, funnel funds into local programs and foster interagency cooperation to help develop children from birth to kindergarten.

And for 18 years, it’s worked, said Janice Edgerton, executive director of the Region A Partnership for Children, which administers the money for SmartStart in Western North Carolina. The idea has been co-opted by other states; North Carolina, it seemed, had done something right.

“It is so obvious now that these (early) years are so important, and on top of that you can track back the research about the success of programs that have worked with children in the early years. You can look back at North Carolina and see the difference now,” said Edgerton. “It’s crucial, and we have tons of evidence to support it.”

But now, as they’ve done in so many other places, the vagaries of the economy and politics are creeping in on SmartStart.

Starting next year, it will lose at least 20 percent of its funding, and possibly up to a quarter.

In Haywood County, cuts will be felt in a program called Parents As Teachers. It does pretty much what it sounds like — engages parents to take an active role in teaching their own babies, toddlers and preschoolers, teaches them what to look for and how to foster their development in the vital early years.

For Nora Doggett, it’s been an invaluable service.

She and her husband moved here from California last year, and that’s when she became a stay-at-home mom for the first time.

“It was a different experience and I didn’t know how to handle it,” said Doggett. But thanks to the Parents As Teachers workers, she now knows how to shepherd her two sons, ages 1 and 3, through the different developmental stages, and she’s got support the whole way.

“Right now, my son is three, and I know what he’s supposed to be doing, and I know what else to look for in him,” said Doggett. “Because they are with you along the way, they know how your children develop.”

Despite its success, the program is falling prey to the gaping budget hole that’s been looming over every state-funded agency for months now.

In SmartStart’s corner, opposing the cuts, are, of course, education advocates who point to numerous studies that list early-age development as key to success later in life. Joining them are the state’s Democrats, who may be in it for the children, but have also entered the fray to take shots at their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, who they say are killing off vital programs with a slash-and-burn approach to the budget and using services like SmartStart as political weapons.

On the other side of the ring are said Republicans, who counter that they’re not cutting arbitrarily, but necessarily. When there’s a funding hole as big as the state faced, something’s got to go, even if it means good programs are cut.

“There’s not enough waste, fraud and abuse in the government to fix $2 billion worth of deficit,” said Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. “We just can’t continue going to the well and asking people for more money, no matter how good the program is.”

He and fellow Republicans went after SmartStart and its companion childcare program, More At 4, citing service duplication and administratively heavy structures. They cut $1 million from the administrative side, said Davis, but they needed more. They had to slice into programming somewhere. And SmartStart was that place.

Parents as Teachers in Haywood County already has 27 families on a waiting list. With the cuts, one of its three facilitators will be laid off, pushing even more families to the waiting list.

Parents as Teachers facilitators make home visits to evaluate children and show parents how to make learning toys from things they already have, like dry pasta and toilet paper tubes.

They also hold group sessions to connect families to one another and teach parenting skills that prepare babies for kindergarten.

And then there’s the connections to other families, other services in the community, which Parents As Teachers workers say are some of the most helpful things they do, especially in the Hispanic community.

Tania Rossi heads up the Latino Parents As Teachers initiative, and she said that’s been one of her greatest successes, connecting families to one another and encouraging them to get their children into early education.

“After six years in the Latino program, I can see a lot of difference,” said Rossi. “You see the impact with other families.”

Among the kids in her Latino program, the reading rates have shot up over the last six years, due partly to her efforts at educating parents.

SmartStart initiatives, however, include far more than Parents as Teachers.

They subsidize childcare for families in the region who can’t afford it, along with developmental services like reading assistance and speech therapy. SmartStart also works behind the scenes with programs like WAGE$, which offers small bonuses to traditionally low-paid preschool teachers, giving them incentives to stick with it.

Across the state, SmartStart funds dozens of initiatives with local partners to support toddlers and their families. Edgerton said she’s concerned that SmartStart won’t be able to continue offering the quality of services it does now.

“You’ve got to remember that we’ve had drastic budget cuts the last 10 years,” said Edgerton. “I’ve been here for 13 years at the Partnership for Children and we’ve had budget cuts for 10 years. So this is really taking a very lean budget and cutting it to blazes.”

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said he understands the direness of the state’s financial situation. And, he said, consolidating everything into a single birth-to-kindergarten model is an admirable pursuit. But deep cuts to the programs themselves, he said, would hurt the state’s children.

“It’s just not necessary,” said Rapp. “But you know, that’s where I think you get people that are in a straightjacket to their own political rhetoric. The bottom line on all of this is that we’ve got children who are at risk that need childcare and preschool education. I just find those kind of cuts unconscionable.”

Canton was one of the first towns in Western North Carolina to sport a swimming pool, something made possible thanks to the booming economy of the mill town and the large population of working middle-class families it gave rise to.

The age of Canton’s pool, dating to the early 1950s, has become all too evident, however, witnessed by the perpetual concrete patches and the lack of modern features. Canton not only has the oldest pool on the block, but is also one of the few that haven’t embarked on a rehab. Even towns with pools built as recently as the 1970s have since done a major renovation and modernization of their pool.

And it isn’t cheap, something pool managers who have been there know all too well.

“I feel their pain,” Jim Brown, the Swain County recreation director, said of Canton’s plight.

• In Swain County, the pool dates to 1977. In 2007, at the 30-year mark, the county launched a series of renovations spanning three years: new filter and pump, new grate-style water return around the pool’s edge, and a vinyl lining.

“We were having the same problem with cracks starting to develop,” said  Brown.

The county opted for a slightly cushiony, vinyl liner that feels excellent underfoot compared to plaster or concrete, but that many public pool managers have shied away from fear of an irreparable tear. But Brown said the lining is so tough that is highly unlikely.

Swain County spent $210,000 on the renovations, which also included putting in a stand-alone splash play area.

The N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund contributed $75,000 to the work.

• In Highlands, a wealthy second-home owner — Jane Woodruff, the daughter of Coca-Cola magnate, Robert Woodruff — made a donation of more than $200,000 to pay for a major pool rehabilitation there, saving the town the expense. The pool dates to 1975, and the renovation was done in 1997.

• At Lake Junaluska, while no wealthy benefactors have made specific contributions to the pool, it does benefit from contributions and donations made to the building and grounds fund.

“People love Lake Junaluska and are eager to help us improve and maintain our facilities,” said Howle.

Lake Junaluska has a pool almost as old as Canton’s, dating to the 1950s. The pool, also like Canton’s, is made of concrete rather than the newer plaster, but has held up far better.

“We have a stringent regular maintenance campaign,” Howle said.

The pool was renovated in 1995, including major new concrete work and the addition of a zero-entry ramp.

• The town of Sylva got a grant from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to fund half the roughly $700,000 overhaul of the pool in 1999. The town faced the similar problem of aging concrete. It was busted up and a new shell poured, expanding the footprint to add extra lap lane and putting in a kiddy-pool with water play features in the process, plus new inner workings like a grate-style water return around the edge of the pool, new filters and pumps.

“It was basically a teenager hang out before. With the kiddy play area, you have more moms and grandparents using the pool,” said Rusty Ellis, the pool manager.

• The pool in Franklin is about 30 years old, and like most newer pools dating to that era, it is built from plaster. It’s a better material for maintenance than concrete: as cracks develop they can be replastered with a thin coat of new plaster. The technique won’t work on pools built of concrete — plaster won’t stick to the concrete. Only concrete can be used to patch concrete, but concrete applied that thinly won’t bond. So the patches are prone to repeated crumbling and cracking in the same place.

“You are basically going to put a Band-Aid on it,” Adams explained of the concrete conundrum.

But with a plaster pool, it can be periodically replastered. The Franklin pool has been replastered three times.

“We are getting pretty close to where we will have to replaster again,” Adams said.

Last year, the county put in new pumps and filters.

The Canton swimming pool is on its last leg and without a major investment of $750,000 to $1 million, the town will be forced to close it within a few years.

Canton’s pool has been held together with everything short of duct tape and baling wire. Every year, the town’s street workers climb down into the dry pool bed with spatulas and buckets of concrete to patch the burgeoning number of cracks, then apply gallons of fresh paint to get the pool through another summer.

“It is in very bad shape,” said Alderman Eric Dills. “We have been patching the pool to get by year after year after year, but water is a destructive force. It is leaking so bad now you just about have to build a new pool.”

It will eventually get so bad patching can’t fix it. And that point is not too far off. The town may have as few as three years left in the pool — five at the most.

Unfortunately, busting up the concrete pool and rebuilding it is the only solution.

“It would be a tremendously expensive project to undertake,” Town Manager Al Matthews. “They have two options — they borrow the money and do it or shut it down.”

Canton’s pool is not only one of the largest in size but draws the biggest crowd of any other pool in Haywood, Jackson, Macon or Swain counties.

Its capacity is 500, and it easily draws more than 300 on busy summer days, fully double what the next biggest pools in the region draw.

“It is one of the most popular things we do have,” Matthews said.

The town board will have a tough choice to make on whether to invest the money to remake the pool.

“The bottom line is no matter what we do, the concrete is still of an age that it will deteriorate. That is the problem: the age of the concrete,” Matthews said.

The town hired a consultant to do an assessment of the pool last year. The good news is that the pool is structurally sound. In fact, that was the main impetus to bring in a structural engineer for an outside report.

“We wanted to know is this pool safe,” Matthews said.

Safe it is, but its useful life is limited. It will take $750,000 to redo the pool, and another $250,000 to redo the bathrooms, changing rooms and concession stand, according to estimates in the report.

Dills doesn’t think the town has the kind of money it will take to bust up and rebuild the pool.

“Really we would have to have some outside funding,” Dills said, suggesting the town hunt for a grant.

The town of Sylva and Swain County have gotten state  grants from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to cover a portion of pool overhauls there. But that was a few years ago, and Matthews is highly doubtful the town could land grant money like that today. Dills admits it may be a long shot.

“The state has tightened up on money. These grants are tougher to get than they were a few years ago,” Dills said.

 

Pools can be a money pit

Pools are an expensive prospect, not only to repair and maintain but simply to operate.

“For every county or town, it is a service. It is not a money making venture at all,” said Seth Adams, Macon County’s recreation director.

Canton brings in about $40,000, but spends $75,000 on lifeguards, staff and other overhead.

Canton is one of the few pools with a concession stands, but it merely adds to the pool’s financial burden. It’s a money-losing proposition: it doesn’t bring in enough to cover the cost of food and counter workers. Last year the concession stand lost over $8,000 on top of the pool’s operational loss.

The town of Highlands posted the worst pool losses in the four-county area last year. It has the smallest attendance and the lowest admission — only 35 people a day on average paying just $2 to get in. The pool brought in a measly $4,500 last year compared to $67,000 in operations.

Highlands is one of the only public pools that is heated, adding to overhead by about $5,000 annually for propane.

In Swain County, pool costs come to $61,000 a year, including a little set aside in a capital improvement fund. The pool brings in only $16,000, but an annual contribution from the town of Bryson City for $21,000 tempers the operating loss somewhat.

Waynesville bulldozed its outdoor pool 10 years ago after building an indoor one. The town couldn’t afford to subsidize two pools, according to Town Manager Lee Galloway.

“The operating costs were always about twice what it brought in,” Galloway said.

Galloway admits he wasn’t exactly sad to see the outdoor pool go.

“It was leaking so much water and the maintenance costs on it were extraordinary,” Galloway said.

Besides, there were two other outdoor pools in the county.

“My argument at the time was you can go to Lake Junaluska, which is four miles away, or Canton, which is eight miles away,” Galloway said.

 

Who should pay?

Therein lies part of the rub. Canton residents are subsidizing the outdoor pool, but scads of the 275 people who go to the pool on an average summer day don’t live in town, and thus don’t pay town taxes toward the pool’s upkeep or operations. Those folks are getting a steal on the low $3 admission.

Likewise, Waynesville’s indoor pool serves the whole county, yet town taxpayers pick up the tab.

The county used to kick in an annual contribution to both towns for recreation, recognizing that the two towns were bankrolling recreation like swimming pools used by everyone in the county. But the county yanked that funding as part of the sweeping recession-inspired budget cuts.

Both towns have contemplated charging pool users more who don’t live in town, and reserving the cheaper rates for in-town residents who also pony up town taxes to subsidize the facilities.

But pool workers would then have to be in the business of checking everyone’s ID to determine residency.

“That is a cumbersome thing to implement,” Matthews said.

Such a system is used at Lake Junaluska, where the 770 property owners at the lake get a 50 percent discount compared to the general public. The pool is operated by Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a private non-profit, and the public is welcome to use it.

“We see having members of the greater community come to Lake Junaluska and participate in what we have and be exposed to the things that are happening here is in a way a form of evangelism,” said Ken Howle, the director of advancement at Lake Junaluska. “We can show our Christian hospitality not only in our programs but the recreational activities we do as well.”

Unlike towns and counties, Lake Junaluska lacks taxes to subsidize operations, so the Lake attempts to break even or come close to breaking even on its pool, and as a result has to charge more than city and county pools — $6 compared to $3 for adults.

In Sylva, the county shares the cost of operating the pool even though the pool technically belongs to the town. In fact, the county pays for the entire pool operations up front, and acts as the employer for the pool’s manager and staff. At the end of the season, the town cuts the county a check for its share — half of whatever that year’s cost was minus the revenue.

In Canton, whether the county chips in, a grant is miraculously found, or aldermen bite the bullet themselves, Dills hopes the town can arrive at a solution.

“The pool is a huge priority,” Dills said. “It is a centerpiece. It is a jewel of the recreation for the town of Canton.”

 

WNC’s outdoor pools

Lake Junaluska

Admission: $6/general public, free for kids 4 and under. Summer grounds pass is $150 for a family of four and includes other Lake J recreation amenities like a round of golf, putt-putt, tickets to Junaluska Singers concerts and more.

Features: Graduated entry ramp good for toddlers and children, as well as handicapped accessible.

Daily average: 125 with capacity capped at 270.

Canton

Admission: $3; 10-visit pass for $25.

Features: Separate baby pool enclosed with a fence to prevent wandering into big pool.

Daily average: 275. Capacity capped at 500.

Sylva

Admission: $3, free for kids 3 and under. Season pass is $150/family or $80/individual. Family night on Monday and Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. for $5/family.

Features: Separate kiddy-pool with water play features. Sun Shade over part of pool.

Daily average: 225. Capacity capped at ?

Swain County

Admission: $3/adults, $2.50/kids ages six and up, free for 5 and under. Season pass is $275/family or $150/individual.

Features: Separate kids pool that is three-feet deep, separate splah play area, water slide, Olympic sized pool.

Daily average: 75 to 100 on a busy day. Capacity capped at 300.

Macon County

Admission: $2/adults, $1/kids under five. Season pass is $100/family or $50/individual.

Daily average: 150 to 200. Capacity capped at 250.

Highlands

Admission: $2/adults, $1/children. Season pass is $90/family and $40/individual.

Features: Separate kiddy pool.

Daily average: 30 to 40. Capacity capped at 80.

Environmental advocates are troubled by major budget cuts and the loss of staff for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, cuts they say will stretch those tasked with monitoring polluters too thin to do their jobs and eliminate beneficial programs.

The state budget cut 160 jobs from DENR.

“DENR as a whole is getting bigger cuts than any other agency,” said Tom Bean, lobbyist with the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

Those jobs are largely coming from regional offices, including 18 positions — more than 20 percent — of the staff in the Asheville DENR office. DENR headquarters in Raleigh, where many environmental permits get issued, is seeing few cuts, however.

SEE ALSO: By air, by land and by water

“It is certainly an industry wish list,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Make sure that they are staying staffed up for issuing permits but cut the staffing for the people who do the policing.”

People who live near dirty industries — asphalt plants with a decibel limit, quarries with blasting restrictions, or paper mills with water pollution limit — will be left out in the cold with no one to turn to when those limits are violated, said Julie Mayfield with WNC Alliance.

“When they observe a problem they call DENR. If they get the right person on the phone it takes that person and hour and a half to get there and whatever was happening may not be happening anymore by the time they get there,” Mayfield said. “If DENR doesn’t observe the potential violation, it is more difficult for them to enforce.”

DENR staffers are the first line of defense in keeping mud out of creeks and rivers. They monitor development and construction in the majority of mountain counties, which don’t have erosion officers at the county level. Even in Haywood, Jackson and Macon, where counties do run their own erosion enforcement, DENR staff still monitors sites that fall outside a county’s jurisdiction, like rock quarries or DOT road projects. In Haywood County, state erosion inspectors even had to crack down recently on sediment violations by federal contractors on Superfund clean-up run by the EPA.

Already stretched too thin, visits from state inspectors were few and far between at the Allens Creek rock quarry. Runoff was muddying Allens Creek for months last year before neighbors finally got DENR to respond.

But Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion, said the Asheville DENR office seemed overstaffed.

They have a bigger staff but issue fewer permits. On top of that, they are issuing more violations, Gillespie said.

“They are doing more notices of violation than anybody else. They are spending their time going out there and doing violations instead of doing permits like they are supposed to,” Gillespie said.

In addition to the budget cuts this year, DENR’s Asheville office will be under the microscope, required to justify every dime of funding in a massive review of its operations.

“The justification review is to make sure they are doing their job, and if not they will be eliminated,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie said the new majority has a mandate from voters to reform all of state government and he is just doing the job he was asked to do.

Many programs under DENR have lost their funding.

One program that no longer exists helped people fix failing septic tanks. The fund was critical in cleaning up unsafe levels of bacteria from raw sewage making its way into Richland Creek in Waynesville and Scotts Creek in Sylva.

Another program that has been cut funded local efforts to curb sediment and erosion. A joint project was in the pipeline by four nonprofit watershed associations in the seven western counties to launch a training course for graders and contractors.

“As you know our streams have been muddy, muddy, muddy, and this would be a real basic attempt to get good, enforceable erosion control training for contractors,” said Roger Clapp with the Tuckaseigee Watershed Association. But “that money was zeroed out.”

Clapp also had a $20,000 grant in the pipeline from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to do fish sampling in the Tuckasegee.

“We were trained to go and ready to launch,” Clapp said. “It would be the basis for really knowing the river in another dimension.”

But that money was lost as well.

At least we have our jobs.

That seems to be the reaction to cost-cutting measures taken last week by Haywood County Schools in response to up to $4 million in cuts from the federal, state and local funding.

More than 200 Haywood County school employees will see their work year shortened, allowing the school system to avoid outright layoffs.

School officials are cutting 12 days out of teacher assistant contracts, trimming assistant principals from an 11.5-month year to only 11 months and taking two weeks salary from food-service workers. Bus drivers are also losing some compensation, namely the bonus they got for perfect attendance and a good driving record.

Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said he knew this was a tough pill to swallow, but the school system was trying to save jobs by spreading the pain a little, and, he said, the employees seemed to understand that.

“You think that when someone gets their time and their pay cut, they would be upset, but I’ve had several calls saying it seems like it would be a difficult thing to do and it seems like the right thing to do to save as many jobs as you can,” said Nolte.

That’s exactly what Sherri Green thinks. Green is a first-grade assistant at Jonathan Valley Elementary in Maggie Valley. She’s been a teacher assistant for 11 years now, and prior to last week, she and her colleagues were concerned that their jobs would be lost along with state funding.

“It’s certainly not an ideal situation, but we are relieved that we got keep our jobs. I understand the state cuts and how that works, but locally we’re really glad, because they’ve had to make some major adjustments,” said Green.

Nolte said that when they broke the news to staff, some were ready to volunteer their time. But, said Nolte, it’s just not allowed.

“It’s illegal,” said Nolte. “You can’t force someone or expect someone to put in hours that you don’t expect to pay them for.”

Green said that, though she and her compatriots are relieved, the cuts are going to force some into a search for a second job, especially if the lost pay checks become status quo.

“You could tell so many of us were relieved. There were a few tears shed,” said Green “But yes, it is going to be hard, 12 days without pay. To us, that’s over $1,000 to most of us, and that’s a lot of money. We’re relieved but we’re still in that position that, yes, some of us might have to take a second job.”

The cut work hours will save the school system roughly $325,000. It’s not quite enough to cover what they’re missing from local funding, the part of the school’s budget that comes from the county commissioners, allocated out of their annual expenditures.

Nolte said that’s part of the problem: they expected cuts from the state level. That whisper has been coming down from the governor’s office since snow was on the ground. But they weren’t quite ready for the 3 percent local cut, which works out to around $430,000, or the federal cuts that they’re going to face, around $100,000.

When commissioners proposed cutting school funding, County Manager Marty Stamey suggested educators dip into their robust reserves to cover the losses. The school system has a sizeable fund balance. But, said Nolte, they were already planning to use that.

“We’ll definitely be using the EduJobs money [federal funds allocated last year] and some of the fund balance,” said Nolte.

But, he said, they’ve only got the fund balance because they’ve been careful with the money they get. In essence, said Nolte, they’ve been carefully squirreling away in the rainy-day fund, but it’s still not enough.

They haven’t touched teacher positions in the work-time reductions because they can’t; that’s negotiated at a state level.

But Nolte said they’re also trying to stay as far away from the classroom as they can for as long as they can.

“Always, we want to, if we can, look at administrative reduction,” said Nolte.

And the school system is going to lose eight non-classroom positions, seven teacher assistants and 10 teachers, though they’re frozen positions that former employees have left, not been laid off from.

And now, as he has been throughout the recent budget debate, Nolte is warning that only so much cutting can be done without damage ensuing.

“At some point in time, cuts of that magnitude begin to affect quality and service,” said Nolte. “At some point in time, if you cut off enough parts, things don’t work as well as they did before.”

REACH of Jackson County continues to struggle financially, but fears this winter that the agency might actually shut down now seem unlikely.

The “village,” a transitional-housing complex for women escaping domestic violence, was bleeding dollars from the nonprofit organization. The complex has since been taken over by Mountain Projects, and that has certainly helped REACH’s financial outlook, said REACH Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer.

But even more importantly, she said, REACH is a leaner, meaner, anti-domestic violence fighting machine … or something like that, anyway.

“Sometimes a crisis can get you to rethink, and I think this has put us in a place where we will be even more efficient and effective,” Roberts-Fer said.

The near financial meltdown has taken its toll, however. The projected budget for REACH this fiscal year is $400,000, down from $1 million just two years ago. And the staff is down, too, with nine positions slashed: half of the people who once worked for the nonprofit are gone.

What’s left, Roberts-Fer said, is the core, essential duty that rightfully belongs to an agency such as this: the ability to help victims of domestic violence during times of crisis.

The hotline is manned, the money-raising thrift shop is open, and the workers remaining for the agency are being cross-trained to handle a multitude of services. The days of specializing are over, Roberts-Fer said, and so are nice-but-not-essential services, such as long-term counseling for victims. That’s being farmed out into the community when there’s a need.

The continued viability of the nonprofit hinges on two critical points: continued grant money from a dollars-strapped state, and the ability of REACH to ride out a four- to five-month expected delay in receiving that funding. These days, North Carolina is slow to put the checks in the mail, and agencies that desire solvency have learned to stash money or use lines of credit from banks to ride out the drought that begins with each new fiscal year.

REACH, however, has no piggy bank, and no real bank that is willing to extend credit — the agency went into foreclosure proceedings with the village, subsequently missing payroll twice and even seeing the water cut off for nonpayment of bills. REACH isn’t exactly the kind of customer most banks will open their vaults to.

Money woes or not, the need for the nonprofit’s services are great; however, during fiscal year 2009-10, REACH of Jackson County received more than 400 crisis-line calls, provided emergency shelter for 37 women and 48 children, and was involved in 269 counseling sessions.

Finance Director Janice Mason said the thrift shop isn’t making much money, but that it is holding its own. One positive sign is that donations are up, she said.

Roberts-Fer has warned her staff that she cannot guarantee all the hard times are over, or even that the agency might not again miss payroll. Still, she remains optimistic.

“Progress towards stability has been slow, but there is definite progress,” Roberts-Fer said.

 

REACH fundraiser

A REACH of Jackson County fundraiser is set for Saturday, June 18, from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Country Club of Sapphire Valley. Tickets are $75 per person. The evening includes dinner, drinks, dancing and gaming, with a special appearance by the Gamelan Ensemble. 828.631.4488 ext. 207.

The General Assembly’s budget would cut funding for a professional development center for teachers in Cullowhee by nearly half what it was allocated last year, slashing the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching from $6.1 million to $3.1 million.

Leaders at NCCAT stopped short of declaring that such a sizeable cut would force them to shutdown. But they do say that without additional funding, the 25-year-old institution will have to severely cut back on services. NCCAT and its 82 full-time and part-time employees, to a large degree, will have to transform, and quickly, to survive into the future.

A likely short-lived reprieve came with Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto this week of the Republican-crafted $19.7-billion budget. Perdue’s proposed budget had called for only a 10-percent cut to NCCAT and the elimination of eight positions.

On the heels of ever-dwindling state backing the past few years, even Perdue’s proposed cuts would have been difficult to absorb, said NCCAT Executive Director Elaine Franklin. She left her job at Western Carolina University in April to oversee this neighboring institution.

Since July 2008 and not including this current fiscal year, NCCAT has seen its funding cut $1,886,821 by the state.

Perdue is unlikely to win her budget battle with the Republican-controlled legislature over the budge. NCCAT could join the ranks of casualties brought on by diminished state funding, with little time to plan or make requisite program changes. Franklin said that would severely damage NCCAT, and disregard the 25-year investment into it that the state’s taxpayers have made.

 

‘Vitally important,’ or boondoggle?

Supporters tout NCCAT’s ability to help keep thousands of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade teachers in the state’s classrooms. Envisioned and pushed through by then Gov. Jim Hunt in 1985, at its height about 5,000 teachers a year came to either Cullowhee or to its smaller sister campus in Ocracoke for seminars and programs. The number in the past few years has been closer to 2,800 teachers, a cutback that is the visible result of dwindling funds.

The programs are interdisciplinary, targeting the environmental and biological sciences, technology, humanities, arts, communication and health.

The teachers who attend NCCAT are transformed professionally and seem visibly reenergized about teaching in the state’s classrooms, said Regina Ash, director of instruction for Swain County Schools.

“NCCAT is important to our teachers, and because of that, I think it is vitally important to our students,” said Ash this week. Her duties include overseeing professional development for Swain County’s educators.

Ash said one of the most critical services NCCAT provides is helping to underscore that teachers are important, and to give them visible evidence that others value them as professionals. The seminars are free, and NCCAT (via state dollars) has even paid for substitute teachers to take over during teachers’ absences.

That type of spending, however, goes to the crux of the criticism NCCAT has attracted in such lean economic times as these. And so does the very appearance of NCCAT, a stunning facility that features state-of-the art equipment and such perks as a small fitness center. On the walls hangs a large modern art collection — never mind that it’s on permanent loan, and cost nary a taxpayer penny; “boondoggle” is the word some have used. Staff at NCCAT still feel the sting of an article published in 2009 by the right-leaning Carolina Journal, a Raleigh-based publication targeting North Carolina’s political scene. Headlined “Teacher Paradise in Jackson County Attracts Scrutiny,” the reporter noted:

“… the center’s rambling stone buildings and finely manicured landscaping could be mistaken for that of an upscale mountain resort. And it offers a range of amenities to match. The grounds feature an idyllic lake, nature trails, and garden complete with covered picnic tables, benches, and fountain. A detached lodge has 48 individual living quarters and includes private bathrooms, common areas with access to outdoor patios, kitchens stocked with snacks, wireless Internet, and even a Hershey’s Kiss on each teacher’s pillow in the morning.”

 

Fighting for NCCAT

Given the harshness of NCCAT’s detractors, the names of some of its supporters might just surprise you. Numbered in the institution’s fan base? That fiscal conservative, no-apologies-for-it, newly elected Republican member of the state legislature, Sen. Jim Davis of Franklin.

Davis recently toured the NCCAT facility in Cullowhee. He heard and believes the pitch staff there make: that an investment in NCCAT is an investment in the state’s teachers, and one that pays off big for the children of North Carolina.

NCCAT reports a 96.9 percent average annual retention rate for teachers who participate in the professional development it offers. This compares to 87.9 percent statewide and 83.2 percent nationally from 2004 through 2007.

But hard times result in hard choices, Davis said while back in his home district this past weekend and in Sylva to attend the new library grand opening. NCCAT was lucky to get even $3.1 million, said Davis, who voted for the budget that cut NCCAT’s funding.

“It was a fight,” Davis said, adding that he believes anybody who actually takes the time, as he did, to “go out there and see it, and find out what they really do” will come away “convinced it is a good program.”

So what does the future hold for NCCAT? That’s difficult to say right now, because planning in these uncertain times is practically impossible, said Tina Wilson, director of business services.

“How can we plan?” Executive Director Franklin asked rhetorically.

One simply does the best one can, added Peter Julius, an NCCAT center fellow who helps design programs, and a former Swain County teacher. Programs are usually planned out six months ahead; Julius is simply warning people that everything hinges on the final state budget.

Franklin believes NCCAT, if it can claw up from that $3.1 million in state funding, can still survive and prosper.

“We do fully realize that this is a difficult budget for North Carolina,” she said. “(But an additional infusion of dollars) would give us the time to do better planning, strategic planning.”

And transform the institution into what must become NCCAT’s future, she said: an organization that relies on private fundraising to pay portions of the bills. Franklin said she has no doubts that NCCAT supporters will open their billfolds and wallets to ensure the institution stays afloat.

But NCCAT must, she said, have a bit of wiggle room to make that transition.

Governor Beverly Perdue nixed the $19.7 billion state budget put on her desk by the General Assembly Sunday, winning herself a place in state history.

She is the first governor to veto a budget since veto powers were granted in 1997, and she told lawmakers that education was the impetus for her action.

“For the first time, we have a legislature that is turning its back on our schools, our children, our longstanding investments in education and our future economic prospects,” said Perdue in a statement and speech last Sunday.

Perdue’s veto is unlikely to hold, however. The GOP is expressing confidence that it has the votes necessary to override her historic thumbs down. Five House Democrats voted with Republicans to pass the budget, enough to override the veto if they continue bucking their party. Republicans have a tight enough grasp of the Senate not to need Democrat help for an override vote in that chamber.

Perdue posited that the budget as-is would cause “generational damage” by cutting funds to K-12 schools, preschool programs More at Four and Smart Start and elderly care.

It takes a super-majority of 60 percent to override the Governor’s veto.

In the House, that means 72 votes. There are 68 Republicans in the House — four short of what’s needed to buck the Governor’s veto. But five Democrats had previously sided with Republicans in voting for the budget, and Representative Phil Haire, D-Sylva, doesn’t think those five Democrats can be persuaded to come back to their own party.

“Some of them were promised something in the budget,” Haire said.

Haire personally voted against the budget proffered by Republican leadership.

“I think it is going to have a devastating effect on North Carolina, and it will takes us years to regain the status where we are now,” said Haire.

In the Senate, there are 31 Republicans compared to 19 Democrats, one more than needed to meet the super majority criteria.

The Governor and Democrats in the legislature are pushing to keep a 1-cent sales tax that Republicans want to eliminate. Keeping the extra sales tax, say Perdue and other Democrats, could raise $900,000 to fill the more than $2 billion funding gap facing the state.

Haire doubts Republicans will capitulate on their position on the sales tax.

“Not no, but heck no. If they do that they renege on their whole campaign promise,” Haire said.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said keeping the sales tax, billed as a “temporary measure” when it was put in place two years ago, is non-negotiable.

“It expires June 30, and if they thought that they needed a tax for longer than that, they should’ve voted for it. If the legislature wanted to have a penny sales tax, they’d have to introduce a bill and vote on it, and that’s just not going to happen,” said Davis.

With Republicans unwilling to compromise on the sales tax, Perdue’s veto, if it stood, would accomplish little but a prolonged stalemate.

“The first of July you get to a shut down if you don’t have a budget,” Haire said.

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