By Leslee Kulba- At their last work session, the Buncombe County Commissioners heard budget requests from Asheville City Schools (ACS), Buncombe County Schools (BCS), and Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College (A-B Tech).
Throughout the meeting, an occasional reference would be made to documents before the commissioners but not visible to members of the public. In addition, responses to some questions, like Commissioner Joe Belcher’s request for the total amount of ACS’ ask, were to be forwarded via email to the commissioners.
ACS –Superintendent Dr. Denise Patterson led off with a request for an additional $515,000 so each school could have its own mental health liaison, $280,000 for four teachers at the Montford North Star Academy, and $225,000 for two teachers and two teacher assistants at Asheville Primary School.
The school’s requested $38,898,166 budget included $565,904 in salary increases, $320,510 in retirement matches, and $102,777 for employer contributions for hospitalization.
Patterson also mentioned a handful of capital projects as high-priority. Belcher asked where those needs were at the meeting of the School Capital Commission if they were so high-priority. He was told they were on the list, but they hadn’t made the cut. The commissioners expected the capital projects would be funded through existing revenue streams and not the county’s fund balance.
Patterson highlighted a $2,000 signing bonus offered for teachers of math and Exceptional Children (EC), described as those who were not performing at grade level in math, writing, reading, or behavior. Commissioner Al Whitesides muttered under his breath, “I can’t believe that,” when he was told there were no signing bonuses exclusively for African-Americans. “In spite of the fact there are so few?” he asked.
Chief Academic Officer Dr. Dana Ayers next addressed the achievement gap and dropout rates. In 2017-2018, the dropout rate was 1.72%, and fewer than 10 African-Americans dropped out. Whitesides asked what percentage that was of minority students enrolled and how that number compared with rates in other districts. When the commissioners returned to the matter at the end of the meeting, Ayers supplied statistics that did not answer the question.
To his credit, Chair Brownie Newman called attention to the strange way the state has of calculating dropout rates. Rather than dividing the number of students in a cohort who drop out by the number of students in that cohort, the school calculates the ratio of the number of students dropping out in a single year to the number of students currently enrolled in all cohorts. It makes the number look 1/13 the size it actually is, and as long as staff at the State Board of Education act like they can’t explain it; the masses can remain dumb and happy.
To address the achievement gap, which, is rated the worst in the state, the fifth-worst in the nation, and growing, Patterson said the district had contracted with three consultants; developed an Equity Plan, a District Achievement Plan, and Student Achievement Plans; and holds Equity Collaboration meetings. After some discussion about viewing whole children falling through the cracks with a comprehensive lens, the commissioners asked what the school was doing to make a difference.
Representatives from the district then displayed the chart used to track every EC and African-American student, with names redacted. It began with a state-generated probability for each student passing the end-of-year (EOY) exam. Other columns listed quantities like quarterly achievement scores; some of which were measured to the nearest hundredth of a percent. Director of Student Support Services Dr. Eric Howard said poverty, health, and inequality all contribute to student failure; and the school was partnering with many agencies for wraparound services to support mental, social, and emotional health.
While ACS representatives complained about losing students to charter schools, Belcher asked why their budget kept growing to serve an ever-diminishing population. Newman said ACS was one of the “best-funded” districts in the state. It receives a large supplement from the county’s general fund. He wanted to know what students were getting for the extra money that wasn’t available to other districts in the state.
BCS –Superintendent Dr. Tony Baldwin started on his “soapbox” saying the purpose of public schools is to help children grow. He therefore applauded the state for revising its metrics to focus more on personal growth than on achievement, saying some EC kids will never be gifted, but they may grow.
Baldwin said the three subgroups the county tracks, groups in which children have a high-risk of failure, are: the economically-disadvantaged (50.35% of enrollees), children with disabilities (14%), and those who have to learn English (6.7%). “You have to go beyond ethnicity when you talk about the achievement gap,” he said. In other words, skin color wasn’t holding Buncombe County students back, but Commissioner Amanda Edwards wasn’t buying it. She wanted to see how African-American achievement compared to that of Caucasians within the three subgroups. Baldwin said the county wasn’t tracking that, so he’d have to get back to her. She also wanted to know what BCS was doing to increase the diversity of its staff.
While student growth in all subgroups met or exceeded state standards, three BCS schools received “D” grades from the state. One of them was Johnston Elementary. Belcher and Baldwin talked about how that student body was comprised of 40 nationalities. It was also near Deaverview, a high-crime area. Baldwin said it was challenging getting students settled down after riding past another scene of “police cars and a death,” on the way to school. A “D,” he said, “is what you’d expect in those circumstances.” And yet, the children grow.
Baldwin spoke awhile about statistics that tracked children with teachers rated “effective” as opposed to “ineffective.” Students in fifth and sixth grade showed a performance gap of 15-16 percentage points, and Baldwin said those in the charge of the ineffective teachers “never caught up” in higher grades.
Baldwin next explained why losing students to charter schools does not lower the cost of running public schools. Eighty-six percent of BCS’ operating budget is for personnel. If the system loses 321 students, those students knock class sizes down by one or two, not affecting the need for teachers. Making things more expensive, though, is the reduction in state funding disbursed on the basis of average daily attendance. The latest loss in state funding, $658,959, translated to about seven teachers’ salaries.
Like ACS, BCS is deploying marketing strategies to capture students attending “choice” schools. Unlike ACS, where per-pupil spending is $12,345; per-pupil spending in BCS is $9,408. The amounts local government contributed to those totals are $5,525 and $2,183, respectively. Baldwin said state and local funding fluctuate, amounts determined by factors like performance and demographics.
After spending almost his entire time allotment on “why,” Baldwin finally got around to “what.” Changes from a continuation budget were driven by: an unrestricted fund balance of $2,500,000 or half the policy minimum of a month’s operating expenses, an increase in the state retirement plan costing $254,000, a state decision to raise school principal compensation costing $175,000, $378,000 from higher utility rates, and the carryover from the $1,500,000 difference between BCS’ request and the county’s appropriation last year.
Every year, the state makes decisions affecting school budgets, like setting classroom sizes and compensation rates. Some teachers are paid by the state, and some by the county, so in the interest of fairness to people doing the same job, the county compensates teachers apace with the state. Baldwin therefore requested commissioner support for a 5% pay increase for 229 certified teachers ($1,809,183), a 3% increase for 483 non-certified personnel ($2,351,493), and increased benefits ($1,367,812).
The state was further going to make cuts translating to the elimination of 20 teaching assistant positions ($728,640). Belcher said it would be a shame to spend the millions the commissioners have committed to early childhood education just to abandon kids to classrooms without teacher assistants in the second grade.
Lastly, increasing the number of behavioral support positions from 10 to 17 would add another $567,000 to the budget. Unlike ACS, BCS had added their requests. Last year, the adopted budget called for a $64,9565,732 appropriation from the county for the school’s $149,492,661 budget. This year’s request would be $5,014,945 higher.
A-B Tech – President Dr. Dennis King was more straightforward. After thanking the commissioners for investing about $7 million in college capital maintenance, he said A-B Tech was requesting a $1,060,000 increase to their 2019 funding level. He broke the budget expansion down to $124,000 to cover a 2% parity raise for county employees and hire a CAD assistant; $11,000 more for unspecified operating expenses; $437,000 more for utilities to cover increasing rates and a decision by the state to no longer subsidize telecommunications expenses; and another $488,000 to handle recurring expenses paid out of fund balance last year, when the college drew down all but $70,000 from its $1,292,312 reserves. The new request was for $7,560,000.
In response to questions from Newman about satellite operations, King said the college is in negotiations to sell a portion of its Enka campus, including the Haynes building. It intends to continue and grow existing programs elsewhere on campus, but the machine shop will probably move to a larger facility on the main campus. The college is also looking to expand its Airport Road operations.
King said a lot of people with four-year esoteric degrees are enrolling in A-B Tech to become employable. Over half the students in the brewing program have bachelor’s degrees, and three-fourths in the nursing program have at least a bachelor’s degree. He added a graduate of the college’s welding program just scored a $60,000 job, fresh out of school.