Monday, June 17, 2024

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Educational funding comes under the microscope

The top-ranking administrators from the Alamance-Burlington school system were put through their paces last week when they appeared before the county’s board of commissioners with a belated budget request for the next fiscal year.

Due to its tardy submission to the county’s administrators, the school system’s request had been omitted from the spending plan that county manager Heidi York had unveiled to the commissioners on May 20. York had ultimately used the school system’s previous allocation as a placeholder in her recommended budget, although she acknowledged that a late-coming submission had hinted at a substantial increase in the school system’s request for the coming year.

William Harrison, the school system’s interim superintendent, was able to present this increase in person on Thursday when the commissioners convened the first of three special meetings that they’ve scheduled in order to delve into the county’s next budget.

ABSS interim superintendent Dr. William Harrison

Harrison, who did a previous turn as the head of ABSS from 2014 until 2018, had been invited to temporarily resume his old post following the departure of former superintendent Dain Butler earlier this year. On Thursday, Harrison admitted that the financial situation that greeted him upon his return was at least as baffling as the one that confronted him when he began his initial tenure at ABSS.

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“I’ve never had a budget that was as difficult as this one,” he said. “There is not a single thing here that I feel comfortable cutting. But we had to do something.”

Harrison went on to remind the commissioners that the school system had a little over $103,000 in its reserves when the last fiscal cycle wound down on June 30, 2023.  In the meantime, he said that the schools have grappled with challenges ranging from increased utility costs to a precipitous drop in their state staffing allotment.

In order to cover the school system’s anticipated bills in the new fiscal year, Harrison asked the commissioners for a grand total of $59,170,941 – an increase of $10,343,790 over the county’s current allotment to the schools. Harrison added that the school system has set aside $1,576,708 of this sum for area charter schools, which are apparently owed more than $700,000 to cover enrollment underestimates from previous years.

The interim superintendent said that that much of the remaining $8,767,082 has been earmarked for expenses that school system can’t realistically wriggle out of. This figure includes nearly $4 million in utility increases, including an anticipated spike of $2.8 million in the cost of electricity.  Another $1,388,000 has been allotted for technology upgrades, while a further $1,378,455 has been set aside for maintenance-related increases, including $700,000 in preventative work on roofs and HVAC systems that’s intended to forestall a repeat of the mold infestation which held the school system hostage for several weeks in 2023.

Harrison went on to assure the commissioners that the school system has already accrued $7,585,663 in spending cuts in response to anticipated reductions at the state level. In particular, he pointed to the elimination of various non-classroom positions in order to ensure that area schools with an adequate number of teachers and teacher assistants.

Among the posts that Harrison said are consigned to the chopping block are student support positions like social workers and nurses, media specialists in secondary schools, and school bus coordinators. The interim superintendent conceded that some of these staffing reductions have been achieved by consolidating existing positions and shedding those that have become vacant. He also alluded, however, to the proposed elimination of some existing staff, such as the school system’s seven-member cadre of graduation coaches and all seven of the administrative assistants who serve its middle school guidance counselors.

Harrison acknowledged that some of the toughest staffing decisions have concerned the school system’s assistant principals, who he said have become increasingly critical to the smooth operation of schools. He added that, with the exception of the Alamance Virtual School, he and his colleagues have tried to ensure that every school has at least one assistant principal, although four of them will be forced to share a single position between them. These proposed changes proved particularly hard to stomach for commissioner Pam Thompson, who had served on the Alamance-Burlington school board before she joined the commissioner’s in 2020.

“I have real concerns about the lowering numbers of assistant principals,” she said. “I just know how important those APs are…and I know it’s all about money. But I also look at it as being about kids.”

County commissioner Pam Thompson

Thompson and her fellow commissioners went on to bombard the school system’s representatives with increasingly specific questions about their proposed allocations. These included penetrating interrogatories from commissioner Craig Turner about the system’s service contracts, and a request from Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, for more details about the anticipated utility increases.

Greg Hook, the school system’s chief operations officer, conceded that a portion of these expected hikes can be attributed to greater utility usage in the aftermath of the aforementioned mold crisis. Hook added that, in order to prevent the renewed buildup of mold, area schools have kept the heat and air conditioning running 24/7 in spite of the inevitable impact on utility costs.

ABSS chief operating office Greg Hook

“I think we’re going to be up 80 percent on our cost for utilities,” the school system’s COO went on to predict; “the big one being electricity, and then, to some extent, gas.”

Another source of consternation for the county’s leaders was the lackluster level of student achievement at many area schools. Harrison conceded that 17 of the school system’s 38 schools are currently deemed “under-performing” – with only one more needed to force the whole system to adopt a state-imposed remediation plan. He nevertheless expressed optimism that the school system would fare well in this year’s end-of-grade tests.

The school system’s reps also fielded a large number of inquiries from commissioner Bill Lashley, who had been out-of-pocket for the better part of a month due to a medical crisis. Among other things, Lashley second guessed the proposed allotment to the virtual school, which Harrison tried to persuade him can’t rely solely on state-level funds to remain open.

In the meantime, Lashley assured the interim superintendent of his own support as the school system continues to struggle with its finances.

“I know it shocked a lot of folks when the newspaper said there’s a 27 percent increase in the school system’s budget,” the commissioner recalled during Thursday’s discussion. “I got a lot of calls about that increase, and my only saving grace was that I was sent to the hospital…But I know you’re looking at these things, and I want to know that we want to help you.”

The commissioners also received a much briefer report on Thursday from Ken Ingle, the president of Alamance Community College, whose budget request to the county was submitted early enough to appear in the county manager’s proposed spending plan.

ACC president Ken Ingle (right) and chief financial officer Andrea Rollins.

In her recommendations to the commissioners, York had suggested $4,877,822 million for ACC’s operations along with another $536,000 for the community college’s capital needs. Ingle admitted that he and his colleagues had hoped for $5.7 million to cover the college’s operations.

“But we’re certainly appreciative of the $4.8 million that’s recommended from the county [for operations],” he added. “While this is a little bit of difference from what we requested, I will say that this is a significant step toward where we want to be.”

The commissioners, for their part, found little reason to nitpick over the county manager’s recommendation for the community college.

“Kudos to the manager,” commissioner Bill Lashley said as he gave voice to the prevailing view of the group. “She saw that you’d need some extra money, and she put it into her budget – a 19 percent increase.”

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