Alamance-Burlington school board members will consider asking Alamance County’s commissioners for nearly $50 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
If approved, the proposed $50 million county funding request for ABSS would represent a $4.7 million, or 10.5 percent, increase over county funding levels for the current fiscal year – and would be on top of more than $35 million in federal coronavirus relief funding that the school system is estimated to receive, based on figures that were presented to school board members this week (see accompanying chart).
The proposed budget for ABSS, postponed from last week, was presented to school board members during a special meeting Tuesday afternoon, after their discussion about school reopening plans stretched nearly four hours during their regularly-scheduled work session.
ABSS schools have been closed since March 2020 amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. School board members tentatively agreed last week to start a phased reopening March 1 but said they will review Alamance County COVID-19 case rates and other information, such as the number of ABSS teachers who are willing to return to their classrooms, at their February 9 work session.
Meanwhile, ABSS finance director Jeremy Teetor told school board members this week that the school system is estimated to receive $22.6 million from a second round of federal coronavirus relief fund package, totaling approximately $900 billion passed by Congress on December 27, 2020. ABSS previously received $12.4 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that Congress approved last spring, which was allocated by the General Assembly and included a separate pot of money called the “Governor’s Emergency Education Relief” (GEER) funding, Teetor said Tuesday.
The additional $22.6 million that ABSS is estimated to receive from the second round of CARES Act funding is based on an assumption by the state Department of Public Instruction that it will be approximately four times the base amount ($5.6 million) of CARES Act funding that the school system received from the coronavirus relief package Congress passed in March 2020, Teetor told The Alamance News later Tuesday afternoon. The initial $5.6 million did not include subsequent funding that the state received through the CARES Act, which the General Assembly subsequently allocated through house bill 1043 and house bill 1105, he said. (See accompanying chart for a breakdown of the total estimated CARES Act funding for ABSS.)
The latest round of federal CARES Act funding that Congress passed in December will require review by the State Board of Education, Teetor told the newspaper Tuesday. “We will know all restrictions and the amounts for sure before we submit [our] budget request to [the] county,” he said. Public school systems are required to use the GEER funding for positions such as: school counselors; social workers; and psychologists to address social and emotional needs that students have experienced during the pandemic, Teetor said, though he noted that pot of money also can be used for supplies and software.
The proposed county budget request for ABSS includes $4.7 million in additional funding for operations that would be used to cover the following “continuation” expenses: to retain 12 academic coaches and nine school nurses ($1.7 million); per-pupil funding for the county’s four charter schools ($450,000); state-mandated increases in employer matching contributions to the state retirement and health insurance plans ($410,000); an increase in reimbursement rates for School Resource Officers (SROs) who are assigned to ABSS schools ($210,000); and step increases (based on years of experience) in the pay for classified employees, or those positions that don’t require state licensure ($35,000), which Teetor said had been based on the recommendations within a pay study completed for ABSS in 2019.
The school system’s administration is also proposing that the school board ask the county to fund $1.9 million in “expansion items,” which include: additional mental health specialists; an enrollment/community specialist for non-English speaking students and families, as well as an interpreter/translator; 17 additional, full-time SROs who would be assigned to elementary schools; and a modest increase in the county-funded supplement that teachers receive on top of their state-funded salaries.
Other possible funding sources
However, Teetor told school board members during their special meeting this week that other sources of revenue could be tapped to cover expansion items.
Approximately $220,000 in fund balance – which the finance director termed “recurring local budget variance,” referring to unspent funding previously allocated by the county and carried over from prior fiscal years – for expansion items such as employee pay increases. Fund balance could be used to cover the following expenses: a 1-percent increase in the pay steps for 176 employees within the finance division ($600,000); a one-time 5-percent bonus for teaching assistants, which Teetor said would serve as a “bridge” until permanent raises can be funded ($225,000); and a 1.5-percent increase, across the board, in the county-funded supplement that principals and assistant principals receive as a percentage of their state-funded salaries.
County-funded supplements for assistant principals currently range between 9.5 and 11.5 percent; they would increase to a range between 11 and 13 percent of their state-funded salaries. County funded supplements for principals currently range between 11.5 and 13.5 percent but would increase to 13 to 16 percent of their state-funded salaries.
Teetor told school board members that the ABSS had slipped from 11 to 19 (out of 115 N.C. public school systems) in the state ranking for local supplements for assistant principals and from 11 to 18 in the ranking for county-funded supplements for principals.
Teetor pointed Tuesday to other possible sources of funding could be used to cover a total of $4.4 million in expansion items that wouldn’t be included in the county budget request for 2021-22.
Approximately $2.6 million in federal CARES Act II funding could be combined with GEER funding and other federal sources to cover costs for: nine additional mental health workers ($760,000) and an instructional technology coach to work with teachers ($80,000). Teetor told school board members that ABSS is looking to apply for a state grant of up to $566,661, which he said is the maximum amount possible, to offset a total estimated annual cost of $1.1 million for hiring 17 additional SROs that would be assigned to the elementary schools.
Teetor acknowledged Tuesday afternoon that the nine additional mental health positions would be temporary – he specified two years, since the second round of CARES Act funding is currently scheduled to expire in September 2023 – but said the administration would “eventually find a way to fold those” into future budgets once the coronavirus relief funding is exhausted.
Under the proposed 2021-22 budget for ABSS, approximately $60,000 in existing state transportation funding would be used to increase bus driver pay by about 50 cents per hour. Currently, bus driver pay ranges from a minimum of $14.65 to a maximum of $19.49 per hour. If school board members were to approve the proposed budget, bus driver pay would increase to a minimum of $15 per hour and a maximum of $20 per hour, based on the figures that Teetor presented during the special meeting.
Approximately $135,000 in existing child nutrition funding would be used to boost hourly pay for cafeteria workers, from the current rate of $11.86-15.01 per hour to the proposed rate of $11.86-16.99 per hour. Another $35,000 in existing child nutrition funding would be used to provide a pay increase for cafeteria managers. Child nutrition funding comes from state and federal sources, as well as any income generated by students who pay full-price for school meals, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Both the superintendent and finance director emphasized to school board members this week that the proposed budget for 2021-22 is preliminary.
School board members will have at least three more meetings at which to discuss the budget proposal before they will be asked to vote on a final budget request to forward to the county commissioners, Teetor said. The finance director said he will develop a proposal for spending the second round of CARES Act funding and present it to school board members during an upcoming meeting.
“This is a starting point,” ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson told school board members Tuesday. “This board’s got some work to do, as to where our priorities lie. The capital improvement program is there; there’s an assumption that [pay-as-you-go funding for capital expenses] will continue, as well.” Alamance County’s commissioners adopted a capital improvement plan for ABSS in June 2019 that calls for allocating $3.3 million per year to ABSS for building repairs and maintenance, starting with the 2019-20 fiscal year and for each of the six subsequent fiscal years.
School board members are scheduled to hold a public hearing at 6:00 p.m. to gather feedback on the proposed budget for ABSS for the fiscal year that begins July 1.