Haywood schools headed for a cliff
Editor’s note: This is part two on a two-part series about education funding and the politics behind it.
North Carolina is at a crossroads in public education funding and the path taken in the near future will likely be determined by who wins in the November election.
While Democratic legislators are pushing to restore education funding from early childhood to the university level, Republicans generally favor a reform platform based on belt tightening, school choice and more local control.
Bill Nolte, associate superintendent of schools for Haywood County, notes that state budget cuts started as early as 2009 when N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue rescinded a portion of the funds earmarked for education as part of a statewide budget balancing effort after state revenues didn’t meet expectations. Funding for schools has dropped steadily since then, causing squeezes in every aspect of the system.
Candidates from both parties are campaigning hard on education issues, and both sides offer different interpretations of how education has fared under the past two years of a Republican-controlled house and senate. The state Republican Party said more state money was given to education while those in the Democratic party argue otherwise.
Nolte said both sides are right.
“Part of the reason the overall allocation for public education is higher is because there are more schools and more students,” Nolte said, “but for us, very little has changed. I can tell you this. We definitely did not get more money for teachers."
That means the continued need to educate students in the face of significant budget cuts that began nearly four years ago, but were propped up by federal funds for the past three years. The year of reckoning for Haywood will be next year when the carefully managed fund balance is expected to plummet because funds have been exhausted to support current programs.
Education in Haywood County is much like other communities in the state with the bulk of funding coming from the state, and smaller portions coming from the federal and county government.
In the most recent fiscal year, nearly $41 million was provided in state funds, slightly more than $14 million came from county funds and the federal government contributed $5.4 million in funds mostly earmarked for special education programs. These funds are for operation expenses only and don’t include any capital costs needed for building improvement or maintenance.
When the state lottery was first established, the legislation was carefully crafted to not replace existing funds for schools in that funds were earmarked for scholarships, teacher retirement, capital costs and early childhood education. Increasingly, lottery funds have been freed up for operational use.
“They are definitely supplanting state current expense allocations with brick and mortar funds,” Nolte said of the funding that that virtually dried up for things like replacing roofs or fixing heating systems.
A chart shows the specific areas where 129 full-time workers were cut from the school system between the 2008-09 school year and the current one. The vast majority of the reductions, 46, came from service workers, but 35 teacher assistants were cut out, and the system lost 18 elementary school teachers.
Many of the positions were lost through retirement or by not filling vacancies that occurred, but there were layoffs as well.
Along with the reduced funding comes higher costs. Nolte citing the rising costs of employee benefits as one example.
“There are less funds available to actually operate schools,” he said.
Nolte explained the Haywood school district leaders planned ahead to operate as frugally as possible, realizing there would be a time of reckoning when the federal stimulus funding and other funding ended. That strategy resulted in an estimated $3.4 million fund balance at the start of the fiscal year. Of that, about $2.4 million has been designated for operations this year. Unless something changes, there will not be enough funding next year for the Haywood County public education system to maintain its current level of operations.
With the federal funding ended, no state allocation to replace the funds and the carefully safeguarded fund balance nearly depleted, the coming fiscal year is likely to be a pivotal one for public education in the county.
"A lot of us are afraid that the education of our children will be sacrificed as political pawns by those running for office on a platform of school reform," Nolte said.