Alamance-Burlington school board members seemed to have few qualms about a $49.1 million proposed county budget request for 2020-21, though several board members asked ABSS administrators this week to reconsider their spending priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.
If Alamance County’s commissioners were to approve the full, $49.1 million budget request, ABSS would receive an approximate increase of $3.3 million, or 7.2 percent, in county funding for the next fiscal year that begins on July 1.
ABSS has received an approximate average annual increase of $2.5 million, or 6.5 percent, in county funding for each of the last five fiscal years, based on the budget ordinances that Alamance County’s commissioners have adopted for current 2019-20 fiscal year and each of the four previous years.
“In total, we saw over $13 million [in] requests for new things,” ABSS finance director Jeremy Teetor told school board members during their work session Tuesday. “We compressed that for you to dissect; I couldn’t imagine us ever going to the county and saying, ‘We need $13 million.’” The administration invited school employees and parents of ABSS students to participate in several recent discussions whose input was used to develop the budget request, he said.
The proposed county budget request for ABSS includes $1.8 million in additional funding to cover existing expenses. The big-ticket expenses in “continuation budget needs” include: $550,000 to increase county supplements for teachers by ¼ of 1 percent; $405,000 to cover a state-mandated increase in employer matching contributions to the state’s retirement and health plan; $355,000 for locally-funded positions; and $200,000 in additional per-pupil funding for a new public charter school that is scheduled to open in August (see accompanying chart).
‘Arms race for teachers’
The local supplement, which teachers receive on top of their state-funded salary, currently averages 11.5 percent but would increase to 11.75 percent. The school system’s ranking for county-funded teacher supplements has improved from being 24th in the state in 2008-09 (when teacher supplements averaged $3,173 per year) to ranking 10th in the state in 2018-19 (when county-funded supplements averaged $4,817 per year), based on figures Teetor presented Tuesday.
“This ranking is from [the state Department of Public Instruction’s] statistical profile,” Teetor said. “This is not relative to our ability or our effort” to fund the supplements.
School board member Tony Rose suggested that isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison to look at teacher supplements in Durham County, which averaged $7,005 in 2018-19, or Orange County, which averaged $6,585 because those counties have a larger total tax base (or higher total value of all properties in those counties) with which they can fund teacher supplements.
“That’s to show that, out of the local money we receive, we are putting an extra effort in those supplements,” Teetor said, referring to county current expense funding for ABSS. “Another important county to note is Forsyth, which has fallen to number 20” in the teacher supplement rankings for 2018-19 but historically had been ranked in the top 10, he said.
“Somebody really framed it up in a good way yesterday,” the finance director added, referring to a discussion with the school board, the board of commissioners, and the county’s delegation in the General Assembly Monday morning. “That was, ‘it’s an arms race for teachers and administrators.’”
“I just wanted us to make sure we don’t ignore that this particular issue has been a partnership with the commissioners through the years, as well,” Rose said. “Even when the boards were not so friendly, this was one issue where we had constant agreement…The other side of that is, we look at this through the lens of staying competitive. A lot of these counties have a lot of real property value to draw from; we need to acknowledge the effort that [Alamance County’s commissioners] are giving to that.”
Rose also suggested that ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson discuss the issue with Alamance County manager Bryan Hagood to “find out what the temperature is,” apparently referring to the commissioners’ willingness to fund an increase in teacher supplements this year.
Meanwhile, school board vice chairman Brian Feeley urged his fellow school board members not to hit the brakes when it comes to offering competitive teacher supplements. Referring to a chart that Teetor had presented, listing 20 N.C. school systems that offer the highest teacher supplements, Feeley said, “What I see is tiers – tiers with a very competitive marketplace. If you are coming from out-of-state, you might look at something and say, okay, there’s clearly a top end. If you break it down into tiers what you would find is a bell curve with two very skinny ends with a big fat middle. The work is not finished; that progress only comes with sustained commitment over a period of time. I would advocate that we don’t fall backwards…We could easily, 12 months from now, sit in the same room and be [ranked] at number 14. [Our] strategic plan talks about this march that we would be committed to; we’ve made this incremental progress – we shouldn’t hit the brakes.”
Feeley also urged his fellow board members to consider increasing the local teacher supplement by an additional 0.25 percent, above the preliminary increase included in the proposed county budget request for ABSS (for a total of ½ of 1 percent).
“I agree with you,” school board member Steve Van Pelt said. “To keep our teaching force strong, pay – local and state – makes a big difference,” as do things such as facility conditions, support from administrators, and opportunities for professional development, he said.
State shifting burden for unfunded mandates to counties
Aside from the proposed increase in teacher supplements, a number of continuation budget needs that ABSS has identified for the upcoming fiscal year are mandates that been pushed down from the state, based on information that Teetor presented.
The employer contribution rate to the North Carolina Teachers and State Retirement System (TSERS) is expected to increase by about 1.74 percentage points this year, the finance director said. Currently, ABSS is required to contribute 19.70 percent of each employee’s annual salary to TSERS, he said.
“That will grow to 21.44 percent – that is something we know will grow,” Teetor warned this week. The employer-funded portion of premiums for insurance coverage through the State Health Plan is also estimated to increase to about $6,647 in the upcoming fiscal year for all employees who work 30 or more hours per week, according to the school system’s finance director.
“We have budgeted additional money to forward to charters,” Teetor said. “That includes a new charter school [that is expected to open in Graham this August], so we have to plan for that very carefully.”
Teetor pointed to some of the smaller continuation budget needs that that the state has shifted to the counties. The General Assembly passed legislation in 2016 requiring North Carolina school systems to modernize school business software that is used to manage finances in human resources, payroll, and other accounting functions. ABSS has included $90,000 in its county budget request for 2020-21 to cover a portion of that expense that isn’t being funded by the state, the finance director explained.
“Every time I run a report, I get down on my knees and beg it to do what it’s supposed to do,” Teetor said.
New funding needs include athletic trainers, increasing bus driver pay to $15-20 per hour
The “expansion budget needs” within the proposed county budget for ABSS includes several new big-ticket priorities. ABSS is proposing $550,000 in new county funding for a four-year lease to replace 8,000 Google Chromebooks, which are laptop computers that students use in their classes and for testing and will soon be obsolete, according to Teetor. Google is no longer providing software or security updates to keep the devices fully operational and secure, he said.
“We don’t have a replacement cycle, and this has been an area that has been identified for cuts” over the last several fiscal years, Benson elaborated Tuesday. “They don’t get security patches, and over time, it puts you ask risk for things like ransomware” that could bring the school system’s entire network to a halt, he said.
“If we have, say, something like 17,000 computers right now, and this is only going to take care of 8,000, how do we maintain the other [ones] we have?” school board Patsy Simpson asked.
“It’s important we start someplace and build our capacity to replace equipment,” Benson responded. “It’s a start, right?”
One of the more contentious line items in the $49.1 million proposed county budget request is $550,000 that would fund salaries and benefits for six new licensed athletic trainers, but which Simpson suggested are superfluous.
ABSS athletic director George Robinson had discussed hiring high school athletic trainers with school board members last fall, as Teetor recalled this week. Robinson told school board members in October 2019 that high school athletic trainers generally help reduce sports injuries; lost instructional time; insurance premiums; and exposure to possible litigation. The athletic trainers could teach a couple of sports medicine classes per day, based on Robinson’s description.
“Those folks would also be teaching a course at the high school,” the finance director said Tuesday. “They would start the day later, teach, and stay after school.” The estimated $550,000 cost for six new athletic trainers includes salaries and benefits that are commensurate with that of a teacher who has 10 years’ experience, Teetor explained.
An additional system-wide athletic coordinator, which had been included in the original proposal, appears to have been nixed from the proposed county budget request that Teetor presented.
However, Simpson bucked the idea of hiring athletic trainers when it was first proposed, and she still wasn’t sold this week. “What is the difference between these athletic trainers and the [ones] we have now?” she asked during the work session.
“You’re referring to the ones that are high schools are paying from a small stipend” for each high school, Teetor said, though he didn’t specify how much the stipends are.
“You are saying, with the funds that we give to our principals now, if they choose to, they can hire athletic trainers?” Simpson asked. “If we have the ability to fund it, why would that be on the list? I guess we’ve been fortunate with the first responders and EMS that we provide right now. Our children are being taken care of right now. I do know a lot of school districts are moving to that model…I’m trying to prioritize right now. Is it like patching a roof and eventually it’s going to cave in?
“My preference would be to take the whole $550,000 from athletic trainers and put it in our classified pay,” she said later, referring to employees who work directly with children every day.
To arrive at the proposed county budget request, the school system’s administration looked at past county allocations to come up with a dollar figure that might be within reach, Teetor said, adding, “We are very happy with capital outlay.”
“And keeping in mind that we did not ask for any operational increases last year,” school board chairman Allison Gant recalled. Meanwhile, Teetor reminded school board members that the county budget request for 2020-21 is far from final. The board is currently scheduled to hold a budget public hearing in two weeks, and “it will be presented a couple more times next month,” he said.