Sunday, May 19, 2024

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School board wants 27% hike in county spending


Alamance-Burlington school board members have approved a county budget request for the 2024-25 that school officials described Tuesday afternoon as “very, very difficult” and “fiscally responsible” – but would represent a potential budget of approximately $66.4 million and at least $14.2 million (27 percent) more than the county’s current funding levels for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Alamance County’s commissioners allocated $52.1 million in current expense and capital funding for the 2023-24 fiscal year.

The school system’s budget request for the 2024-25 fiscal year that begins July 1 totals approximately $66.4 million, including the county current expense funding and $3.9 million in capital funding the county manager has recommended for ABSS (see accompanying chart for a complete breakdown).

At the same time, board members stressed the importance Tuesday of making sure that the commissioners understand the school system’s true financial needs – not just the budget request itself, but also $7.6 million in budget cuts needed to close a $3.5 million estimated deficit in state and county funding for 2024-25 and to make up for the loss of federal Covid-19 stimulus relief funding that expires on September 30 of this year.  ABSS has approximately $7.5 million in federal stimulus funding on hand, based on the budget documents presented Tuesday.

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The county budget request that school board members voted 7-0 to approve Tuesday afternoon includes: approximately $6.2 million in “continuation” funding for things such utility costs and other mandatory expenses such as employer contributions for state retirement and state health insurance premiums.

The county budget request for ABSS also includes $3.3 million in “expansion items for custodial supplies, services, technology replacements, and maintaining the Alamance Virtual School; and a 10 percent contribution in county funding that ABSS is required to share with charter schools that serve students who live in Alamance County.

However, the county budget request for ABSS omitted any county annual funding for building repairs and maintenance (i.e., capital funding), which Alamance County manager Heidi York had previously penciled in at $3.9 million for the 2024-25 fiscal year.

If adopted by Alamance County commissioners later this spring, the county manager’s recommended $3.9 million in capital funding would reflect an increase of $600,000 (18 percent) from the county’s base allocation of $3.3 million in capital funding for the 2023-24 fiscal year.

ABSS interim superintendent Dr. Bill Harrison assured board members Tuesday afternoon that, while the county budget request reflects $7.6 million in what he termed “deficit corrective actions,” no current employees will lose their jobs, though some are projected to have their months of employment reduced (see accompanying chart).

Instead, the only positions that would be eliminated are either currently vacant or expected to become vacant around the end of this school year, ABSS interim public information officer Jenny Faulkner confirmed for The Alamance News during Tuesday’s meeting.  Other school officials have said those vacancies would remain unfilled.

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At the same time, Harrison warned the board about potentially deeper cuts that would need to be made if Alamance County commissioners don’t fully fund the budget request.

“Our budget is around 90 percent people,” he told school board members during their work session Tuesday afternoon.  “If we have to come up with a substantial amount of money, we are going to go deeper [with cuts].”

School board members voted unanimously 7-0 to approve the county budget request as presented but also repeatedly pressed Harrison to emphasize to the county commissioners that the $7.6 million in deficit corrective actions is “cutting really important stuff,” which he said affects students and staff.


Line item adjustments

Several “expansion items” that had been included in an earlier draft of the county budget request for ABSS have since been removed.  Those new expenses had included: $225,000 to hire three additional school resource officers for schools in Burlington; an unspecified cost to provide a supplement ranging between $100 and $500 for approximately 945 classified employees such as bus drivers, cafeteria staff, and clerical assistants; and an unspecified cost to provide a second consecutive increase in the county-funded supplement for athletic coaches.

The costs for two other line items – continuing to operate the Alamance Virtual School and costs to replace Chromebooks (student computers) and other technology equipment – have been reduced in the county budget request that school board members voted Tuesday to forward to Alamance County commissioners.

The line item to continue operating the virtual school was reduced by $437,500, to $500,000.  Most of the current approximate total of about 24 positions associated with the virtual school are state-funded, though part of its expenses, including teacher supplements, are funded within the county-funded portion of the budget for ABSS.

Harrison has recommended eliminating grades four and five at the virtual school, which he attributed to declining enrollment and potential savings.  There were 36 students enrolled in grades four and five (and a total of 236) at the virtual school, as of the end of the first month of the current school year, according to ABSS enrollment figures.

A line item to replace aging laptops, hotspots, and other technology equipment also was reduced by $100,000 to $1.4 million in the final county budget request school board members voted unanimously to approve Tuesday.


Bowden suggests sending commissioners a second option that includes $7.6 million in cuts

Meanwhile, school board member Ryan Bowden, who participated in the meeting and voted by phone, floated the idea of sending a second budget request to the commissioners that would include the $7.6 million in cuts.

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School board member Dan Ingle interjected, “I believe that would be something the interim superintendent said he would be willing to explain to the commissioners.”

School board vice chairman Donna Westbrooks urged the interim superintendent, “Please make sure they understand how hard this was for all of us; we don’t like it.”

While school board member Seneca Rogers initially said, “I think my vote might be a nay,” as he cited the $7.6 million in cuts, he ultimately voted with the other six board members.  “I know what we have to do; it’s just tough,” Rogers said, becoming visibly emotional.

Several school board members expressed reservations about the county budget request prior to voting to approve it and forward it to the county.

School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves said in a subsequent interview with The Alamance News Tuesday afternoon that she shares the concerns she’s heard over the past year, “that ABSS hasn’t been fiscally responsible.”  For an example, she said positions she thought were to have been eliminated over the past two fiscal years were instead moved into other funding categories within the budget.

At the same time, Ellington-Graves said she worries about the financial impact that the reduction in months of employment will have on existing ABSS employees next year, adding that she’d been contacted by one employee who estimates she’ll lose thousands of dollars in pay as a result of a reduction in her months of employment.

Earlier in the meeting, Ingle pointed out, “One of the things a lot of folks don’t understand is this [federal stimulus] funding…We’re not the only county that is going through this.  There were a lot of positions that were hired using [stimulus] funds.  Three years ago, the comment was made these positions are not going to be forever.”

Among the positions that were created and funded by the $83 million in federal Covid-19 relief stimulus funding ABSS received were school instructional assistants (to help students recover from “learning loss” later attributed to online instruction) and nurse extenders who were hired to assist with testing staff and students for Covid-19.

“Everybody kept saying [it’s a] fiscally responsible budget,” Bowden said prior to the board’s vote to approve the budget.  “I think it’s a fiscally conservative budget.  No doubt in my mind, this is taking our school district 10 steps back.”

Voting to approve the county budget request were: Bowden; Ellington-Graves; Ingle; Westbrooks; Rogers; and school board members Chuck Marsh and Dr. Charles Parker.

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