County gives school funding request a cool shoulder

By Vicki Hyatt | Apr 25, 2014

As Haywood County school leaders explained the financial realities closing in on the public education system last week, county commissioners were sympathetic, but also gave little hope that requests for added funding could be fulfilled.

State funding has not kept up with a growing enrollment, Superintendent Anne Garrett told the commissioners, and the system is losing teachers and administrators to surrounding counties that have salary supplements more than double that offered in Haywood.

School employees are paid according to a state salary schedule, and many school districts use local funding to offer extra financial incentives to attract quality employees.

Currently, it is especially difficult to recruit math, science and exceptional children teachers, Garrett said. Another job that is increasingly hard to fill is bus drivers.

Staffing in the school system, the county’s second largest employer, has been reduced by 138.5 positions since the 2008-09 school year, and there are now numerous classrooms with more than 30 students, Garrett said.

A decade ago, Haywood became one of the first counties in the state to determine its school system allocation according to a funding formula. The formula uses a five-year average based on the number of students and is adjusted based on actual student numbers shortly after the school year begins. The county appropriation amount also includes the taxes on alcohol collected locally.

According to the formula, the county’s appropriation to the school system would increase by $280,318 or 1.68 percent in total appropriation and 2.33 percent per pupil allocation over the current year revised amount, said County Finance Officer Julie Davis.

The school system requested $1.1 million from the county, a 6.87 percent increase.

During a recent work session, commissioners questioned school officials about the request.

“Is everyone on board with formula?” Commission Chairman Mark Swanger asked.

“Yes,” said Garrett. “The formula has been a very fair formula thorough the years.”

“I believe Haywood is among the top in the state for per pupil funding,” Swanger said.

Garrett confirmed it is 21st out of the 100 countywide school districts in the state.

Swanger referenced previous battles between county commissioners and the school district where county budget hearings would be packed by school employees from custodians to teachers making a case for higher wages.

“We thought a funding formula would be the answer and hammered out an agreement both boards endorsed,” Swanger said. “The bottom line is the commissioners will appropriate X number of dollars and the elected officials on the school board make the decision on how to spend that money. It can be used on the supplement or other expenses.”

A top priority, Garrett said, is to increase the local supplement by a half a percent, which will cost $228,000. As a result of state mandates, the district is facing an additional $312,000 in costs.

Not receiving additional county funding will mean the district needs to dip into its fund balance, which will be about $1.7 million in funds that could be budgeted by the year’s end. The commissioners are requiring an additional $2 million of the district’s fund balance to be held in reserve to cover the expansion costs at Pisgah High School. Garrett later said the project is being funded through lottery proceeds, but in the event state legislators decrease or eliminate that funding source, the county commissioners wanted funds set aside to cover the construction.

“We’re asking for a 6.78 percent increase to cover additional things we need beyond the funding formula,” Garrett said.

“I agree with all you are trying to do,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells, who previously served on the school board. “The problem is money. …We’re having to do more with less.”

School board member Bob Morris said a lot of parents would like to see the high schools in the county more competitive.

“We’ve lost good teachers over the years,” he said. “If you’re competing with other districts where teachers are making more money next door for a 25-minute drive, it will catch up with you.”

Swanger noted the funding formula increase could be put exclusively toward salary supplements if that was a school board priority.

“Some would say you don’t have a formula if we do this,” Swanger said of the school’s budget request.

“Our needs have changed,” Garrett responded.