Thursday, May 23, 2024

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County budget request for ABSS likely to include funding for virtual school, new supplement for classified employees


Alamance-Burlington school board members have resumed discussing their spending priorities for the school system’s county budget request for the upcoming 2024-25 fiscal year – in hopes of finalizing a budget request to forward to the county later this month.

Alamance County manager Heidi York, meanwhile, has proposed an 18 percent increase in county capital funding for ABSS, which if adopted, would increase the county’s allocation for building repairs and maintenance from $3.3 million this fiscal year to $3.9 for the 2024-25 fiscal year that starts July 1 (see separate story, this edition).  That part of the overall county budget for ABSS is separate from the current expense (i.e., daily operations) portion of the county funding request that school board members are working to develop in the absence of a chief finance officer.

For the current fiscal year that ends June 30, ABSS received $3.3 million in county capital funding and $50.4 million in county current expense funding, for a total of approximately $53.7 million in county funding for the 2023-24 fiscal year, based on the budget resolutions adopted last year by both the commissioners and school board members.

The county’s original allocation of $53.7 million to ABSS for the current fiscal year included the $3.3 million in annual capital funding, which was later redirected to mold abatement.  The initial county budget for ABSS for the 2023-24 fiscal year excluded state education lottery proceeds and other revenue sources that the commissioners later authorized to be used to pay the $27 million in expenses related to last summer’s mold outbreak in 33 ABSS facilities.   Nor did the original county budget for ABSS reflect several additional outlays that the commissioners subsequently allocated to ABSS for repairs well after the fiscal year began on July 1, 2023.

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ABSS chief academic officer Revonda Johnson, who’s been pinch-hitting in the finance office following the departure of then-CFO Kim McVey in late February, updated school board members during their latest meeting about where the administration stands with the county budget request for the 2024-25 fiscal year.

While school officials have yet to land on a specific dollar amount for the county budget request, Johnson recalled last week that a top budget priority previously identified by the school board is continuing to operate the Alamance Virtual School.

Operating expenses for the virtual school originally had been funded by federal Covid-19 stimulus money but could be shifted to the county-funded portion of the budget for ABSS, based on last week’s discussion.

Then-superintendent Dr. Dain Butler earlier this year had recommended shuttering the virtual school at the end of the current school year due to what he’d projected would be a $3.2 million deficit in the school system’s budget for the upcoming 2024-25 fiscal year.

That proposal generated significant pushback from nearly three dozen parents, students, and staff from the virtual school, who pleaded with the school board in late February to spare the virtual school from the budget axe.

The virtual school, which has administrative offices within the former alternative school in Burlington, Sellars Gunn Education Center, opened at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.  The virtual school currently employs approximately three dozen teachers and support staff, such as clerical workers.  (Its principal, Rebecca Marsh, is married to school board member Chuck Marsh.)  As of the end of the first month of the current school year, 236 students in grades four through 12 were enrolled in the Alamance Virtual School, according to enrollment data from ABSS.

When it opened in the fall of 2021, the costs for operating the virtual school were initially funded by a portion of the $83 million ABSS received from three federal Covid-19 stimulus packages passed by Congress in 2020 and 2021.

However, any remaining federal stimulus funding (which public education officials refer to as Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief, or ESSER III) that ABSS has on hand must be spent by September 30 of this year, in keeping with federal guidelines that govern the final Covid-19 stimulus package that Congress passed on March 11, 2021.


Modest increase in enrollment projected for ABSS 2024-25

Enrollment is a crucial part of the formula used to determine how much state funding – state and local education officials term it the “average daily membership” or ADM, allotment – ABSS receives each year, Johnson told the board.

During her update on the budget, the chief academic officer appeared to acknowledge the confusion that has surrounded the school system’s own enrollment figures lately.

“We have it right this time,” Johnson assured the board last week.

ABSS enrollment has yet to rebound from its pre-pandemic peak, at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year.  School officials have ebbed and flowed in its projections for current and future enrollments.

As of the end of the first month of school in 2019-20, there were 22,851 students enrolled in ABSS.

By comparison, there were 22,216 students enrolled in ABSS at the end of the first month of the current, 2023-24 school year, representing a decline of 635 students over the past four years, based on the school system’s enrollment figures.

For the upcoming 2024-25 school year, ABSS is projected to enroll 22,603 based on estimates by the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) that Johnson cited for the board last week.

The projected enrollment of 22,603 students for 2024-25 would represent an increase of 387 students from the 22,216 students who were enrolled in ABSS at the beginning of this school year.

While repeatedly emphasizing that public school finance isn’t her area of expertise, Johnson also warned the board last week that ABSS will have to distribute a larger share of its state per-pupil funding next year due to enrollment growth in charter schools in Alamance County and in other nearby counties – where she said students who live in Alamance County are enrolled.


Approximately 2,400 Alamance County students attend charter schools

There are 35 charter schools – four of which are in Alamance County, while the remaining charter schools are in nearby counties – in which Alamance County students are enrolled, she said during her update on the budget for 2024-25.

For an example, Johnson pointed to Uwharrie Charter Academy in Asheboro, which she said has students from Alamance County.  Alamance County also has students who attend charter schools in Durham, Pittsboro, and other nearby cities and towns, she added.

Approximately 2,400 students from Alamance County are enrolled at those 35 charter schools, Johnson subsequently confirmed for The Alamance News this week.

State law requires ABSS to set aside part of its state per-pupil funding allotment for charter schools in which Alamance County students are enrolled.  “If they live in Alamance but attend one of these, we have to pay,” Johnson told school board members last week.

The estimated per-pupil allocation is $1,968.30 for every Alamance County student enrolled in a charter school for the current, 2023-24 school year, according to the latest figures from the state Charter Schools Review Board, which operates under the umbrella of the state Department of Public Instruction and is responsible for approving and overseeing the state’s free public charter schools.

In addition to the state per-pupil allotment, the 211 charter schools currently operating in N.C. also receive state funding for Exceptional Children’s programming and “multilingual” learners, or students whose native language is something other than English, according to DPI.  Charter schools receive no local, state, or federal funding for facility construction or maintenance.

Based on the approximate total of 2,400 students from the county enrolled in charter schools this year – and the $1,968.30 in state per-pupil funding that ABSS is required to set aside for charter school students – that reflects a total of about $4.8 million in state per-pupil funding that ABSS is required to distribute to charter schools in which Alamance County students are enrolled this year, rather than attending an ABSS school.

That figure is likely to rise in 2024-25 as a new charter school comes on line, bringing the total number of charter schools that serve students from Alamance County to 36, Johnson told the board.

The chief academic officer confirmed for the newspaper after her presentation that she’d been referring to the scheduled opening of a high-tech charter school, West Triangle High School, which the state’s Charter School Review Board has approved to open in the Mebane area this August.

West Triangle High School, however, has not yet announced where, or precisely when, it will open.

Meanwhile, school board members have also identified several new spending priorities for the county-funded portion of their budget during the upcoming fiscal year, which include maintaining school health personnel, some of whose positions had been funded by the federal Covid-19 stimulus money, along with providing a new salary supplement for classified employees such as bus drivers and clerical workers, similar to the county-funded supplement that ABSS teachers, assistant principals, and principals receive on top of their state-funded salaries.

Though then-superintendent Butler had previously discussed a potential supplement ranging from $100 to $500 for each classified employee, no specific dollar amounts for that line item have been discussed with the board since Butler resigned on March 4.

The school system’s administration is currently working to develop those costs, along with other expenses, such as utilities and positions that aren’t covered by the state-funded portion of the budget for ABSS, which Johnson said she hopes to present during the school board’s upcoming work session on Tuesday afternoon.

The board is currently scheduled to vote on a county budget at its meeting on April 22, based on the timeline that Johnson presented last week.

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