Macon School leaders ask county for bailout, or harmful cuts are imminent
Macon County Schools are facing a $2 million budget shortfall and are hoping the county will come to the rescue.
That leaves county commissioners with a difficult decision: inject substantial amounts of money into the school system or force the school board to make difficult cuts.
The school system has prepared two lists of proposed cuts. One list that would make $2 million in cuts, and one list that would make only $1 million in cuts.
The list includes funding cuts to sports programs, coaches salaries and principals’ travel budgets. The biggest savings would come from reducing the number of teaching positions by 12, the number who are likely to retire or quit by next year anyway. Not replacing them would save nearly $500,000.
Superintendant Jim Duncan has put a $16,000 salary decrease from his own paycheck on the table in the suite of proposed cuts.
Despite less money coming in during recent years, Macon Schools did not substantially scale back its budget. School systems across the mountains have grappled with state budget cuts and increased costs for everything from teacher salaries to utilities in recent years, and ultimately have cut positions. But Macon largely avoided that by burning through emergency federal stimulus money dolled out to schools and dipping into its fund balance.
Once containing more than $3 million, the last of the school system’s savings account was used this year. Now, having not made smaller adjustments as they went, Macon County school leaders might have to do it all in one fell swoop, or convince the county to ante up.
“We have been calling it the ‘cliff,’” said Macon County Schools Finance Director Angie Cook. “We knew the last two or three years this was coming.”
Cook said the county has been making “mini” cuts throughout the last few years but nothing compared to what will happen if commissioners are not willing to pay all — or a large part — of the amount the school board has requested.
The $2 million would essentially make up for the difference between the school system’s operating budget of nearly $33 million in 2008 versus the roughly $31 million it had this year. While the county has held steady on its annual allocation to the schools of $6.9 million, Raleigh has sent less and less, Cook said.
“In my eyes, that’s the biggest problem,” Cook said.
As the county trudges through its budgeting process for the coming fiscal year, it will be up to a vote of commissioners as to how much extra funding, if any, to hand over to education. But some commissioners have already signaled that they are not too pleased with the prospect of such a large, extra expense.
Commissioner Paul Higdon pointed out that the county recently funded $45 million in school buildings and injected another $1.5 million into the school technology budget last fall. He said that what Macon County already provides a lot of support for education and asking more of taxpayers may be crossing the line.
“I’d be moron to say we have to cut education,” Higdon said. “But we have got to be better managers of limited taxpayer funds.”
Higdon also questioned why none of the cuts the school system discussed at a meeting with commissioners and the school board back in February have been enacted. Instead, Superintendant Jim Duncan decided to pitch a budget increase request to the county for the full amount of the shortfall.
Duncan said it made sense to ask for a funding increase to plug the gap first.
“Until you’re actually forced to make the cuts — you don’t just automatically go out and start doing that,” Duncan said.
However, he said he has resigned himself to the fact that some cuts will probably have to be made, even if the county contributes more than its usual allocation. And cuts will likely take away some teaching positions.
“We’ll have to increase class sizes,” Duncan said. “But you can’t go around putting 35 and 38 kids in a classroom.”
Duncan said he wouldn’t reduce teachers for the youngest pupils and would hesitate taking away advanced placement classes. The schools system has about 550 staff total, and about 330 teachers serving a little less than 4,500 students.
Duncan said making personnel cuts in a rural system like Macon’s is more difficult than in many other counties. Macon has two K-12th grade schools, which are more costly to operate since there aren’t always enough students in a grade to justify a teacher, but likewise one must be funded.
School Board Member Gary Shields said he is optimistic the county will not force the school board to make cuts to education. After presenting the first list of proposed cuts — totaling $1.9 million — to commissioners in February, Shields said the school board members had to do a double-take and re-position themselves for the April meeting, where they scaled back the cuts and instead asked the county for more money to plug the shortfall.
“We did have a plan if they didn’t give us an increase,” Shields said. “But we looked at that $1.9 million and said ‘Whoa, this is murder.’”
But even if some cuts are passed down, he hopes they will fall in line with the $1 million or so chosen carefully by the board and school administrators and deemed “Plan B.” The thought of the county declining to help with any extra expenses makes Shields, who was also the former principal at Franklin High School, uneasy.
“I’m still hopeful that clear minds will prevail and the county will see the need and that we’re not inflating our need,” Shields said. “If we start going backward in education, we lose a generation real quick.”
County Commissioner Ronnie Beale said he’s not made up his mind just yet and will wait and see what County Manager Jack Horton recommends for the school in his budget, but he is open to lend a helping hand. Not in spite of how much the county has contributed the education system in the past, but because of it.
“It’s the first time in over 30 years we don’t have students in trailers,” Beale said of the mobile education units the county was able to do away with because of the money it invested in new schools. “The only thing I know is the last place you want to cut money is in the classroom.”
Macon County School cuts
The Macon school system in facing a $2 million shortfall. This list shows only $1 million in cuts, in hopes the county will increase funding to the schools to avoid a full $2 million in cuts.
11 Teaching positions: $470,041
2 central office positions: $87,000
1 Franklin High Student Services position: $60,000
Staff Development: $22,000
Cell phone supplements: $11,000
Cut bookkeeper from 12 months to 11 months: $3,000
Instructional materials: $78,000
Superintendent salary cut: $16,618
Sports referees: $50,000
Co-curricular sports: $25,850
Steel toed boots: $4,000
Principal travel: $9,550
New Century Scholars: $10,000
National Board renewal fees: $6,600