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Amid funding uncertainty, Buncombe County Schools to request more from county government

Buncombe County Board of Education member Rob Elliot, left, said the district did the best it could to address the need to increase staffing and support for exceptional-children programs and mental health.
Photo by Greg Parlier
Buncombe County Board of Education member Rob Elliot, left, said the district did the best it could to address the need to increase staffing and support for exceptional-children programs and mental health.

Faced with uncertainty over state and federal funding next fiscal year, Buncombe County Schools is seeking to fill financial gaps with local money from the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

The county Board of Education passed an increased funding request of $13.5 million from county commissioners at its May 2 meeting based on a “vast number of assumptions and projections,” according to BCS Chief Financial Officer Tina Thorpe.

“As of today, we do not have state or federal planning allotments. This has never been the case at this point in time. Therefore, we still have incomplete information about most critical budget variables, both on the revenue side of the budget and expenditure side of the budget,” Thorpe wrote in her letter to the board, presented at the meeting.

BCS will make its pitch to fund the increase over last year’s $86.6 million allocation at a Thursday, May 9, education work session with commissioners. At the meeting, Asheville City Schools will also lobby for a $3.8 million increase over its 2023-24 allocation of $16.1 million.

The largest chunk of BCS’ request — more than $5 million — would go toward maintaining current levels of service to students by retaining 87 permanent staff positions using local funds instead of expiring COVID-era Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funding.

The increase also includes $3.3 million for mandated increases in salaries and benefits for those graduating to higher-paid steps based on years of service and $680,000 for unchangeable hikes in operation costs. There is no request to raise the local supplement for teacher or staff raises outside of typical step increases.

The rest of the increases address some of the demands the Buncombe County Association of Educators brought forward in a petition at the April 11 school board meeting. BCAE also filled the room with red-clad supporters at the May 2 meeting, 17 of whom advocated for their demands during public comment.

There is a $2 million increase for multilingual learner services and support in the proposal, including 12 new multilingual learner teacher positions, Thorpe said.

The budget includes nearly $1 million to increase the hours for exceptional-children assistants from seven hours a week to eight, which amounts to about a $4,500 raise per year, she added. That surpasses the BCAE’s request to increase the salaries of certified and classified staff who work with exceptional children by at least $2,000 a year to limit turnover in the positions.

The proposal also includes almost $1.5 million for additional assistant principal, counselor and social worker positions.

Shanna Peele, a special education teacher and BCAE president, asked the board to support and enhance the proposed budget by providing additional support for exceptional-children educators and fully paying for positions previously funded by ESSER.

“Our students with exceptional needs deserve access to the specialized resources and support necessary to thrive academically, socially and emotionally. Increasing the number of exceptional-children educators and behavior support staff members, we can better address the challenges and requirements of these students, fostering an inclusive learning environment where every individual has the opportunity to reach their full potential,” she said.

Erin Byrnes, an academic interventionist at A.C. Reynolds Middle School, said her job is endangered because of expiring ESSER funds. Byrnes identifies students who may be experiencing learning loss and helps them overcome those issues.

“I have data to show you that every single child that I’ve worked with in the past two years has shown growth … but my job is on the chopping block. So if our [goal] is to increase our student performance on standardized tests and other limited measures of their potential and their abilities, then we should not consider cutting the very positions that are designed to uplift our students who do not have all the advantages,” she said.

Cody Edenfield-Estes, a teacher at Oakley Elementary, said she and others had calculated that the district needs $54 million more to address BCAE’s identified needs, not the $13.5 million the district is requesting.

“We need you to come out swinging for us. We need to feel that you are fighting for us,” she argued.

Board member Rob Elliot said he was proud of the budget the staff presented and argued that it addresses many of BCAE’s demands.

“I made a motion to approve his budget tonight because I do believe that there are mechanisms in this budget that we presented that do address a good number of these concerns, though it doesn’t solve 100% of them,” he said “And later, when we talk about a legislative agenda, I think you’ll hear that we’re actively going to be advocating to the N.C. General Assembly and others to help solve some of the other pieces.”

Board member Kim Plemmons acknowledged that the district desperately needs more multilingual teachers, exceptional-children teachers, social workers and counselors, but thinks educators have to be realistic in their approach to county commissioners.

“I know we need more, I definitely think we need more. And I wish I could say that the county’s going to give us a lot more money,” she said. “But in all honesty, there’s only so much money the county has.”

Legislative agenda

During every BCS budget discussion, board members direct most of their frustration with funding shortfalls toward the N.C. General Assembly. Increasingly, so do teacher advocates.

Teacher and outgoing BCAE Vice President Lissa Pedersen said public education in North Carolina is at a crisis point, citing low teacher pay, tax-funded vouchers for private schools, culture wars and the stance of candidates running for statewide office, including superintendent of public instruction.

The BCS board passed a slate of priorities it would collectively advocate for at the state level, including many funding priorities.

Those include providing mental health personnel at nationally recommended ratios, bringing base pay for teachers and administrators up to the national average, reinstating pay for advanced degrees and longevity, reinstating full retirement benefits to all employees and funding full-time, permanent substitute teachers.

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