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Interim supt. proposes 28% spending increase (+$15M) for ABSS from county funds

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The Alamance-Burlington school system’s draft county budget request for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1 tops $68 million – which, if adopted, would represent a $15 million (28 percent) increase from the county’s current funding levels for ABSS (see accompanying chart).

[Story continues below summary of interim superintendent’s proposed budget request proposal to school board.]

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.  (Those figures exclude $27 million from other sources of revenue designated for ABSS that the commissioners authorized to use for mold abatement last summer.)

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The draft county budget request that ABSS interim superintendent Dr. Bill Harrison presented to school board members Tuesday afternoon includes a potential increase of $11.2 million in county current expense funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

For her part, Alamance County manager Heidi York previously proposed that the county commissioners allocate $3.9 million in capital funding for building maintenance and repairs for the 2024-25 fiscal year that starts July 1.

 

Proposed additions to the county budget

Harrison’s draft county budget request retains some, but not all, of the spending priorities that school board members previously identified, such as: $937,500 to continue operating with Alamance Virtual School; and $225,000 to hire three additional school resource officers for schools in Burlington.

Utility expenses, which Harrison estimates at $4 million for the upcoming fiscal year, represent the largest single increase in the “continuation” portion of the county budget for ABSS (i.e., mandatory expenses that ABSS is required to pay).

Two factors are driving that projected increase in utility costs, Harrison told the board Tuesday.  One is the need to run HVAC systems 24 hours a day in all ABSS facilities, in hopes of preventing another mold outbreak; the second is the statewide electricity rate increases approved for Duke Energy this year, he said.

Additional funding priorities that Harrison and the school system’s administrators have penciled into the draft county budget request include: $1.5 million for preventative equipment maintenance and an increase in the custodial contract with MFM Industries; and $1.4 million to replace aging laptops, software, and other technology devices.

“We need to budget for replacing student devices,” ABSS chief operations officer Greg Hook told the board Tuesday.  “Our oldest devices that students are using now are four years old, and if we continue to use them into their fifth year, we’re going to experience battery failure.  I would recommend replacing 25 percent of the devices next year, and continue to do that each year across four years.

“We have to pay for all sorts of software just so our students can work and our teachers can work and so our technicians can serve the schools,” Hook elaborated.  “Also, there’s some hardware that’s required for our technicians.  We need to make sure we budget appropriately so we can carry out teaching and learning.”

Meanwhile, staff, students, and parents from Alamance Virtual School pleaded with the school board earlier this year to spare the virtual school from closure this summer, as then-superintendent Dr. Dain Butler had recommended to close a projected $3.2 million deficit for the 2024-25 fiscal year.

If approved by Alamance County commissioners later this spring, Harrison’s county budget request would include sufficient funding to continue operating the virtual school – albeit minus the fourth and fifth grades currently offered there.

Interim ABSS superintendent William C. Harrison

“One of the things I noticed, is the virtual school is overstaffed – pretty significantly overstaffed.  We are going to get that more in alignment [with the number of positions that ABSS is allotted by the state].  We’re eliminating fourth and fifth grade [due to] lack of interest.”

– ABSS interim superintendent Dr. William C. Harrison

“One of the things I noticed,” Harrison told school board members during their work session Tuesday afternoon, “is the virtual school is overstaffed – pretty significantly overstaffed.  We are going to get that more in alignment [with the number of positions that ABSS is allotted by the state].  We’re eliminating fourth and fifth grade [due to] lack of interest.”

The most recent enrollment figures for the virtual school, which Harrison cited for the board Tuesday, show there are 14 fourth-grade students and 21 fifth-grade students currently enrolled at the virtual school.   He indicated that the proposed elimination of grades four and five from the virtual school would result in one teacher per grade being assigned to another position elsewhere in the school system.

Harrison instead is proposing to continue offering grades six through 12 at Alamance Virtual School, which he said would be in line the grade spans offered in other school systems that have virtual schools.

“It’s going to be painful but not unbearable,” Harrison warned.

School board member Ryan Bowden asked Harrison whether there was anything that could be done to continue allowing at least rising fifth-graders to remain at the virtual school.  “Is there anything we can do from a combination standpoint, to bring those fifth-graders in with a sixth-grade teacher to avoid sending those students back to brick-and-mortar schools?”

While state teacher licensure regulations would likely prohibit classes from being combined, Harrison said, “We can work with parents.”

“Working with budgets, you’ve got to work with numbers, but you can’t forget there are children attached to those numbers,” the interim superintendent acknowledged.  “There are some other providers, if they are really concerned, that we can much more cost-effectively work with to provide online instruction.  It’s not forcing back to brick-and-mortar; it’s not providing the cultural experience they have at the virtual school – it’s somewhere in between.”

ABSS chief academic officer Revonda Johnson told the board Tuesday that only a handful of rising fifth-graders had shown an interest in wanting to remain there for the upcoming 2024-25 school year.

 

Subtractions from the budget

Meanwhile, Harrison is also proposing to eliminate four director-level positions: executive director of middle schools; finance internal auditor; human resources director; and a lead nurse.

Though he didn’t delve into specifics, Harrison is also recommending the “realignment” of positions for assistant principals; bus coordinators; allotted teaching and student support positions; and bus coordinators, which he estimates will trim $3.6 million from the budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year.

At the same time, he emphasized to the board, “No one’s going to lose a job here.”

Some of the positions that Harrison is recommending for elimination are currently vacant, or soon will be, and simply wouldn’t be filled, as he described it Tuesday.  The number of assistant principals that ABSS employs will be adjusted to reflect the amount of state funding the school system receives for those positions, Harrison explained.  (Butler had told school board members earlier this year that ABSS currently employs more assistant principals than the number funded by the state, and the county-funded portion of the school system’s budget had been used to pay for the additional positions.)

“I think we’re still doing better than the state guidelines, but we’re going to determine consistency from school to school,” Harrison said Tuesday.  “No one will move from assistant principal back to classroom teacher.  We may have some cases where someone has to move from school A to school B; we will have some adjustments in months of employment.  But we think, through attrition, that no one’s going to lose a job here, and that was what really tried hard to do, is find the money [to take] care of our people.”

Approximately 85 to 90 percent of any school system’s budget, particularly the state-funded portion, goes toward salaries and benefits, and the number of jobs that ABSS has should reflect the number allotted by the state, Harrison said. “All schools will have an AP,” he assured the board Tuesday.  “But positions will be aligned with state allocations.”

However, one area that the interim superintendent insisted is already lean on personnel is the Central Office.  “Everybody’s solution seems to be to cut central [office] people,” Harrison said.  “We don’t have too many people over there; that’s simply not the case.”

Harrison is also proposing to eliminate two specialty programs which he estimates would trim $268,200 from the budget for ABSS: A+ Arts and “The Leader in Me.”

The Leader in Me is a student leadership development program offered at several elementary schools that receive federal Title I funding.  ABSS currently receives support and training for that program through the Franklin Covey institute in Utah, Harrison told the board Tuesday.

“In my mind, it’s a philosophy, approach, the way we do things,” Harrison told the board, adding that the leaders at schools that offer the program, such as Newlin Elementary, have told the administration that they could continue the program without continuing the training from Franklin Covey.

Harrison recalled that, during his previous tenure as superintendent, ABSS implemented the A+ Arts program in several schools to integrate arts throughout the curriculum.  “We added visual arts, music,” he said.  “At A+ schools, we gave them one additional position; they chose to do [arts], drama, dance.  They’re losing one of those positions.

“That was part of the strategic plan, specialty schools,” Harrison recalled.  “That was something that started when I was here [before], so if there’s one person that wants to keep it going, it’s this guy,” he said, referring to himself.

During his earlier tenure as superintendent, Harrison recalled that the commissioners had steadily increased the funding needed to achieve the goals outlined in the strategic plan for ABSS, as well as the “Vision for Public Education” that then-school board members had adopted in 2013.  He suggested that kind of commitment is needed now.

“What we need to do is get solid footing, to get on the path to becoming what we all aspire us to be,” the interim superintendent elaborated.  “I want to ask them, as I did in 2014, come to the plate for us again.  What I told you in my interview – what I told the commissioners the first time I met them – is I’m only here for one reason: to do for our kids what I wanted done for my two kids when they were in public schools.  We need to give them, not only what they deserve, but what they’re entitled to.”

“I think it’s a fair budget,” school board member Dan Ingle said Tuesday referring to Harrison’s draft county budget request, “and it’s kind of a conservative budget.”

 

Omissions

School board member Seneca Rogers told Harrison he was disappointed to see that his draft county budget request didn’t include funding for another priority that the board had previously identified: a second consecutive increase in the county-funded supplement for athletic coaches.  ABSS had budgeted $180,000 in county current expense funding this fiscal year to increase the coaching supplement by $400 across-the-board.

Harrison also omitted from the draft county budget request another proposal, that Butler had made earlier this year, to begin offering a supplement ranging between $100 and $500 each for 945 classified employees, which include bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and office assistants, among others.  The estimated cost for the classified supplement would’ve been between $94,500 and $472,500, based on figures presented to the board several weeks prior to Butler’s March 4 resignation.

Harrison responded that, after having served 10 years on the board of directors for the N.C. High School Athletics Association and two terms as its president, “I know how hard those guys work.  It’s almost embarrassing what we pay them – we’ll get the figures for you.”

In a brief subsequent interview, Harrison stressed to The Alamance News, “This is not a final county budget request.  This is a starting point.”

School board members are currently scheduled to resume their discussion about the county budget request at their next meeting in two weeks.

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