Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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School board hones in on spending priorities for county budget request

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Alamance-Burlington school board members devoted much of their latest work session Tuesday afternoon to brainstorming about their top spending priorities as they work to put together a county budget request for the upcoming, 2024-25 fiscal year that starts July 1, but one key question remains: how much their priorities might cost the county.

The county budget priorities that emerged from the school board’s brainstorming session Tuesday afternoon include: continue funding the Alamance Virtual School; cover the salaries and benefits for school “health personnel”; and provide a first-ever annual supplement for classified employees such as clerical workers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and other staff whose positions don’t require state licensure.  No potential costs were given Tuesday for any of those items.

Several recent developments have upended the annual spring ritual of putting together a county budget request for ABSS, chiefly the March 4 resignation of superintendent Dr. Dain Butler and the departure two weeks prior of chief finance officer Kim McVey.

In early February, Butler issued a dire financial warning in a Friday night announcement to ABSS employees:  24 positions could be eliminated, and 30 could have their pay cut due to what he initially projected would be a $3.4 million deficit – which he later revised to $3.2 million – when the current fiscal year ends on June 30.

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In the meantime, school board members forged ahead with a public hearing on the county budget request on February 26 and heard dozens of pleas from staff, students, and parents, urging them to continue operating, and funding, the Alamance Virtual School.  Alamance Virtual School (AVS) has an office at the former alternative school for ABSS, Sellars-Gunn Education Center on Apple Street in Burlington, and offers online-only instruction for students in grades four through 12.

Butler in a February 22 email to staff announced that he would recommend closing the virtual school at the end of the current school year as a cost-savings measure.

The virtual school opened at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year with an enrollment of 479 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, but its enrollment and the number of grades offered have declined since, to its current level of 236 students enrolled in grades four through 12, based on data from ABSS.

The seven school board members briefly split into three small groups during their work session Tuesday afternoon to confer with one another about their priorities for the county budget request, the only one of three pots of revenue that the school board has any discretion to adjust (the other two pots of revenue come from state and federal allotments).  Each group was given an oversized sheet of paper on which to write their spending preferences; those three lists were merged into a single list, on which each group placed one of three color-coded sticker dots to mark the items they deemed most important.

ABSS chief academic officer Revonda Johnson led the discussion Tuesday afternoon, telling the board that, since Butler’s departure, she and chief operations officer Greg Hook have started meeting with Alamance County manager Heidi York to prepare a budget presentation for the commissioners.  “She has encouraged us to be very specific and ask for what is needed,” Johnson said during the work session.

At the same time, the chief academic officer said she’s working closely with a retired CFO from Wake County public schools, Mark Winters, who was brought in late last month to assist with the school system’s finances.

Winters has advised Johnson and her remaining counterparts within the ABSS administration to plug in accurate figures for utility bills along with other “continuation” expenses, such as employer contributions for health insurance and retirement, which are paid out of the county current expense portion of the annual budget for ABSS, she told the board Tuesday.

While no precise dollar amount was given at the time, school board members were informed on February 13 that the utility costs for ABSS had skyrocketed during the first six months of the current, 2023-24 fiscal year, mainly due to dehumidifiers running 24/7 to prevent a return of the mold that had been discovered in 33 facilities late last summer.

 

ABSS advised to budget actual, not projected, utility costs

Winters has advised ABSS officials to compare actual expenses for utilities from October 2023 to January 2024 to those for the same time frame, between October 2022 to January 2023 (and presumably factor in statewide rate increases, such as the 8.5 percent increase in electric rates approved for Duke Energy for 2024), Johnson said Tuesday.  “There was quite a bit of a jump,” Johnson acknowledged.

Also in the budgetary mix are legislated salary increases that most school employees are slated to receive this year, as part of the biennial budget the General Assembly passed in October, as well as annual increases in employer matching contributions to the state health plan and state retirement system, Johnson acknowledged.  The amounts for those increases haven’t yet been set for the next fiscal year, officials in the state treasurer’s office told The Alamance News late last month.

Meanwhile, Johnson spent much of her discussion about the budget process outlining some of the myriad public school finance regulations that ABSS must comply with.  The state (the General Assembly, via the state Department of Public Instruction, or DPI) allots positions – including teachers, principals, and assistant principals, as well as others – based on projected enrollment for the upcoming fiscal year.

Johnson pointed out Tuesday that the salaries and benefits for 13 assistant principals are paid out of county funding for ABSS; and those for 16 assistant principals are being paid from state at-risk funds.

“Classroom teachers are allotted in positions,” the chief academic officer explained.  “They don’t let us turn an empty position into money,” meaning that, if a position is vacant, ABSS doesn’t receive any state funding for the position, Johnson said.  Teaching positions are state-funded based on years of experience (according to a state salary schedule that’s typically adjusted each year), she explained.  “Then we add in [the county-funded supplement] and benefits, and that’s their paycheck,” Johnson told the board.

 

‘Maybe the light bulb will come on’

“I would definitely encourage that we pitch these allotment numbers for the county,” said school board member Ryan Bowden.  “Maybe the light bulb will come on.”

Johnson echoed that sentiment, telling the board that she hopes that, as the fall general election approaches, voters don’t support candidates “who don’t support arts and physical education,” and other educational enrichment activities for K-12 students.

“I think it’s something every citizen should pay attention to,” Johnson said.

School board member Seneca Rogers added, “We want our students to be very well-rounded citizens when they leave our school system.”

The county-funded supplement for teachers ranged between 10.5 percent and 12.5 percent, which they receive on top of their state-funded salaries and depends upon years of consecutive experience with ABSS, based on the latest figures available from the school system, which were current for the 2022-23 fiscal year.  ABSS also offers a supplement to assistant principals (between 12 and 14 percent); principals (14 to 17 percent); and central office administrators such as departmental directors and assistant superintendents (ranging between 7 and 16 percent), according to the latest data available from the ABSS human resources department.

By comparison, ABSS receives actual dollar allotments from the state for expenses such as teacher assistants, office workers, and supplies; and “categorical allotments,” for programs that serve at-risk students and students with disabilities, as well as transportation.

“North Carolina is 41st in the U.S. for per-pupil [funding],” Johnson pointed out for the board.  In North Carolina, state per-pupil funding among the 115 public school systems averages $12,767 per year, she said, adding that the national average for annual per-pupil funding is $16,466.

Johnson said that the board’s spending priorities would be used to develop a recommended county budget request that will be presented at a future meeting.

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