Monday, June 17, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

ABSS supporters turn out to lobby commissioners for more spending

The tribulations of the local school system crowded all else off the agenda this week when Alamance County’s commissioners held a state-mandated hearing on the county’s next annual budget.

Despite being the single largest recipient of county funds, the Alamance-Burlington school system was effectively snubbed in the spending plan that Alamance County’s manager Heidi York unveiled on May 20. Because the school system had failed to meet a state-mandated deadline for submitting its latest annual budget request, York had penciled in the current year’s allocation as a place holder. In doing so, the county manager disregarded the roughly $10.3 million in additional funds that appeared in a belated submission that she eventually got from the schools.

[Story continues below.]


See story on commissioner work session on ABSS and ACC spending requests: https://alamancenews.com/educational-funding-comes-under-the-microscope/

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See story on ABSS’ tardy submission of their budget to county: https://alamancenews.com/school-system-turns-in-budget-request-too-late/


 

The school system’s top brass were nevertheless able to present their request directly to the county’s governing board on Thursday when the commissioners convened the first of three “work sessions” on the county’s forthcoming budget. This presentation set the stage for this week’s public hearing, which the commissioners conducted in the county’s historic courthouse on Monday in order to provide more room for spectators than their usual meeting chambers allow.

Sandy Ellington-Graves, the chairman of the Alamance Burlington school board, gave the commissioners a convenient recap of the school system’s request during Monday’s two-hour proceedings. According to her pithy breakdown, the proposed $10.3 million increase in the school system’s allocation includes $1.4 million to address the “impacts” of state-level actions, $1.6 million for “charter school growth,” and $4 million to cover “increased utility bills” – all of which Ellington-Graves deemed outside the school system’s control. The school board’s chairman alluded to other “expansion” requests for preventative maintenance, technology upgrades, cost increases in janitorial services, and the continued operation of the Alamance Virtual School.

“ABSS is excited and committed to public education.  We will continue to advocate for our students and our staff as we focus on working collaboratively with the board of commissioners to invest in our young people because public education matters.”

– ABSS school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves

Ellington-Graves went on to note that she and her colleagues have tried to soften the impact of these proposed increases with more than $7 million in costs savings and cuts, including the proposed elimination of some non-classroom staff such as media specialists and so-called graduation tutors. She added that these measures demonstrate the school system’s willingness to meet the commissioners halfway rather than engage in a fruitless tug-of-war over the county’s financial resources.

“ABSS is excited and committed to public education,” Ellington-Graves proceeded to assure the county’s governing board. “We will continue to advocate for our students and our staff as we focus on working collaboratively with the board of commissioners to invest in our young people because public education matters.”

 

‘Power to the Purple’

The school board’s chairman, who is up for reelection later this year, was ultimately one of 20 people who availed themselves of the chance to weigh in on the county’s next budget at Monday’s public hearing. Those who strode to the podium that evening included several other candidates for the school board and the board of commissioners, along with some outspoken non-candidates who’ve become familiar faces to the county’s elected leaders. Many of the speakers were nevertheless relative newcomers to these proceedings – having emerged from the woodwork during the current fracas over the county’s next budget.

Supporters of the local school system were particularly well represented among both the hearing’s participants and the audience members who were on hand to lend their moral support.

These public school boosters included a particularly conspicuous bloc from the Alamance Virtual School – a pandemic era initiative that remains the preferred option for some local students.  Clad in t-shirts that proclaimed “Power to the Purple,” in an allusion to the school’s heraldic hue, these audience members included several students who went on to address the commissioners during the hearing.

One of these young interlocutors was Emerson Campbell, a rising sixth grader at the virtual school, who made a broad plea on behalf of the budget request that the school system’s superintendent William Harrison had presented to the commissioners on Thursday.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot in my short 10 years.  The most important thing that I’ve learned, though, is how to care for our community…That’s why I’m here tonight asking you, our leaders, to fully fund the budget that Dr. Harrison has presented.”

– Virtual School 6th grader Emerson Campbell

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot in my short 10 years,” Campbell told the county’s governing board. “The most important thing that I’ve learned, though, is how to care for our community…That’s why I’m here tonight asking you, our leaders, to fully fund the budget that Dr. Harrison has presented.”

Meanwhile, Matthew Dobson, the husband of a teacher at the virtual school, presented a more button-down appeal for the program’s continued existence.

 

“The Alamance Virtual School actually benefits the county budget,” he said. “It is at least 30 percent more cost effective than a brick-and-mortar school…and the virtual school could grow and grow and grow at that lower cost.”

“The Alamance Virtual School actually benefits the county budget.  It is at least 30 percent more cost effective than a brick-and-mortar school…and the virtual school could grow and grow and grow at that lower cost.”

– Matthew Dobson, husband of a teacher at the Alamance Virtual School

 

The ‘Down Home’ team

The virtual school’s supporters weren’t the public hearing’s only participants who literally wore their allegiances on their sleeves.

Monday’s proceedings also drew sizable contingents from Down Home North Carolina and Public School Strong – two liberal advocacy groups that have joined forces in opposition to the spending priorities of North Carolina’s Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Several members of these groups, who wore t-shirts asserting their respective affiliations, approached the commissioners on Monday in order to bring their talking points home to the local level.  Characteristic of these remarks were those of Theresa Draughn, a parent of four ABSS students who identified herself as a member of Down Home North Carolina.

“We demand safe schools for our children, and we demand for our staff cuts to end.  The Alamance Burlington School system deserves a multi generation investment. No more band aids.”

– ABSS parent Theresa Draughn

“We demand safe schools for our children, and we demand for our staff cuts to end,” Draughn told the county’s governing board. “The Alamance Burlington School system deserves a multi generation investment. No more band aids.”

The commissioners heard a similar entreaty from Ebony Pinnix, a parent of children at Pleasant Grove Elementary who described herself as a regional organizer for Down Home North Carolina.

“Make a generational investment in safe, healthy schools. . . save school buildings and save positions. . . These kids do deserve better.”

– Pleasant Grove parent Ebony Pinnix

“It’s easy as one two three,” Pinnix, who had also addressed the commissioners two weeks before, asserted on Monday: “Make a generational investment in safe, healthy schools…save school buildings and save positions…These kids do deserve better.”

Members of these two advocacy groups also took issue with the General Assembly’s apparent predilection to pay for charter schools and private school vouchers out of the same pot as traditional public schools.

Several speakers called on the county’s leaders to lobby against a legislative decision to expand school vouchers to students of all income levels and not only those who are too poor to afford the tuition at their preferred private schools.

Meanwhile, Chris Smith, a Democratic candidate for the board of commissioners, tried to downplay the advantages that private and charter schools allegedly offer to area students.

“It is expensive to run public schools, and there’s a good reason for that.  Public schools provide transportation to every child who needs it to and from their neighborhoods…and every public school has a cafeteria that provides hot meals to students…You get what you pay for when it comes to educating children, and the highest performing schools – whether they’re private, charter, or public – are well funded.”

– Chris Smith, a Democratic candidate for board of commissioners

“It is expensive to run public schools, and there’s a good reason for that,” Smith declared as he addressed the board’s current line up in a “Public School Strong” t-shirt. “Public schools provide transportation to every child who needs it to and from their neighborhoods…and every public school has a cafeteria that provides hot meals to students…You get what you pay for when it comes to educating children, and the highest performing schools – whether they’re private, charter, or public – are well funded.”

 

Pushback

The potshots that these public school boosters lobbed at private and charter schools did not go unnoticed by the sympathizers of these rival academies.

Peter Morcombe, a Graham-based charter school developer who is currently running for the Alamance-Burlington school board, offered a defiant defense of the educational model he has been promoted.

“We’ve been throwing more and more money at the schools, and the schools have gotten worse by objective assessments.  I want to ask you a simple question; how can a charter school educate a child for $3,000 less than ABSS?”

– School board candidate Peter Morcombe

“We’ve been throwing more and more money at the schools, and the schools have gotten worse by objective assessments,” Morcombe declared. “I want to ask you a simple question; how can a charter school educate a child for $3,000 less than ABSS?”

Meanwhile, commissioner Bill Lashley, who had spent most of the past month in the hospital, seemed to be back in his old fighting form as he mounted a strident defense of private school vouchers.

“The state has decided that the money should follow the child,” the commissioner said, “and we should look at those vouchers as an indictment of our school system.”

Lashley also took issue with other oft-stated remarks of the school system’s supporters. In particular, he objected to the pressure that some of them had put on the county to bankroll educational outlays other than the school system’s capital needs.

Lashley went on to prompt the county manager to read directly from the state statute that describes the county’s financial responsibilities to the school system. This passage explicitly mentioned buildings, equipment, and furniture as well as the work that goes into “keeping school buildings in good repair.”  Lashley seized on this citation to observe that the law says nothing about the school system’s local salary supplement, which adds 10.5 to 14.5 percent to each teacher’s state-funded wages. The commissioner insisted that the supplement amounts to a “gift” from the county’s taxpayers, who have made sacrifice out as a gesture of good will rather than as a strict obligation.

“I just wanted to remind you what the Alamance County taxpayers are responsible for,” he proceeded to emphasize, “because I’m responsible to the Alamance County taxpayers.”

Lashley’s caveat to focus on the county’s actual responsibilities would become something of a leitmotif as other county officials responded to the remarks they heard at the hearing.

This admonition was especially germane to another frequent request from the Down Home North
Carolina that the county should apply for a so-called Renew America’s School’s prize that the U.S. Department of Energy apparently has on offer until June 13. Time and again, the group’s members bade the commissioners to take this “free money” while it remains “on the table” – only to have Alamance County’s attorney Rik Stevens inform them the federal largesse is only available to educational agencies, such as the school system, which must apply in partnership with private nonprofits.

In the meantime, some of the commissioners felt unjustly beset even when the school system’s supporters zeroed in the county’s acknowledged duty to fund the school system’s capital needs.

John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, was particularly put off by the constant “badmouthing” over the county’s alleged failure to pay for building repairs and improvements that he insisted have been fully funded. This same gripe also emerged from the board’s vice chairman Steve Carter, who tuned into the hearing from a remote location outside of Graham.

“So much of what was asked for tonight has been covered in conversations that we’ve had before,” Carter told the rest of the board. “Somebody made a comment about roofs leaking – and we’ve had money sitting at ABSS that hasn’t been used…I don’t know how we get that message out better than we’ve already had.”

Carter was apparently alluding to a report that the commissioners put out in January to show that, of the more than $15 million that they had set aside for roof repairs, just $4.3 million, or about 28 percent had been spent by the school system on roofing projects.

 

Everything else

The school system’s proposed allocation wasn’t the only thing to come under scrutiny during Monday’s public hearing.

A few of the hearing’s participants also raised quibbles about other aspects of the county manager’s spending plan, which calls for a grand total of $220.5 million from the county’s general fund to bankroll most of the agencies and programs it subsidizes.

Ed Priola, a current Republican contender for the board of commissioners, dinged York’s budget for its apparent dearth of past year comparisons, which he argued serve to “obscure” the “ballooning cost” of county government from one year to another.

Meanwhile, York’s reliance on $8.4 million from the county’s reserves raised some alarm bells for Henry Vines, a farmer from Snow Camp who has made several unsuccessful bids to win a seat on the county’s governing board. Vines went on to remind the commissioners that this use of savings to make ends meet will reduce the general fund’s reserves to 17.9 percent of its annual outlays – down from the county’s own stated goal of 20 percent.

“[County’s fund balance, or reserves, are] supposed to be for emergencies. It’s not supposed to be to balance your budget.”

– Henry Vines

“It’s supposed to be for emergencies,” he added. “It’s not supposed to be to balance your budget.”

Vines’ squeamishness over the county’s savings was later echoed by both Paisley and Lashley. The latter even decried York’s proposed use of these reserves as one of the few blemishes on an otherwise fetching spending plan.

“If you continue to use your saving account to pay your bills,” he added, “you’re going to be in a world of hurt.”

Yet, an even larger preoccupation for the board of commissioners has been a proposed property tax increase that, likewise, found voice in a few of comments that the county’s leaders heard at the hearing.

A centerpiece of York’s spending plan is a 2-cent hike in the county’s levy on property, which currently stands at 43.2 cents for every $100 of value. This proposed increase proved a bit disconcerting for Sammy Moser, a local retiree who has been a regularly participant in the board’s public hearings. During Monday’s hearing, Moser attempted to impress the potential gravity of this measure on the numerous school children who squirmed their way through that evening’s proceedings.

“If we raise taxes too much or too often, our young students are going to have to pay those taxes when they get older.”

– Sammy Moser

“If we raise taxes too much or too often,” he said, “our young students are going to have to pay those taxes when they get older.”

Yet, the prospect of a tax hike didn’t seem nearly as distressing to Dan Ingle, a retired municipal police chief who presently serves on the Alamance Burlington-school board. Ingle recalled a harangue that Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson recently gave the commissioners to acclimate them to the idea of a higher property tax rate. He went on to agree with the sheriff’s conclusion that this increase is urgently needed to keep the county afloat.

“Sometimes you need to raise taxes, unfortunately, in order to fund [government].”

– ABSS school board member Dan Ingle

 

“Sometimes you need to raise taxes, unfortunately, in order to fund [government],” he said.

 

The big picture

In his own reflections on the proposed tax increase, Lashley insisted that the actual cost of the manager’s budget is closer to 5 1/2 cents on the tax rate given the manager’s proposed allocation of savings to cover expenses, which he stressed isn’t a strategy the county can depend on indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Carter argued that the county’s taxpayers will have to dig even deeper in order cover the school system’s budget request in its entirety.

“To try to throw another $10 million in there,” he said, “that’s going to be another 4 cents on the tax rate.”

These cold, clinical calculations were nevertheless eclipsed by more humanitarian considerations for commissioner Pam Thompson, who assured the hearing’s participants that she understands the real-life concerns that underpinned their remarks.

“I work for all of you, and I’m going to listen to all of you,” added the school board member-turned county commissioner, who is up for reelection to her current position later this year. “You speak with your heart because you love your kids…and if I don’t listen, I don’t get the big picture.”

Thompson went on to endorse the continued existence of the virtual school, as did Lashley in his subsequent remarks on this item.

Yet, the time to start making such calls seemed to have not yet arrived for commissioner Craig Turner, who is presently a Republican contender for one of the several district court judgeships on the ballot this fall.

“It seems that every year the budget is harder,” Turner conceded. “So, we’ve got a lot of work to do…We’re not done, and we need to keep working on this budget.”

The commissioners are currently slated to meet in their regular meeting chambers at 3:00 p.m. on June 10 and at 2:00 p.m. on June 12 for two more budgetary work sessions before their anticipated vote on the budget on the evening of June 7.

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