District looking at $10-million deficit next year
Before budget talks even begin, Union County Public Schools face a $10 million shortfall heading into the next fiscal year. Superintendent Ed Davis announced that number to the Board of Education during their Tuesday, Feb. 7 meeting at Sun Valley High School.
“The deficit has been reduced some,” Davis said. “I was looking at an $11.7 million deficit (but) it’s down to about $9.9 million now.”
The reason for the drop, Davis said, is due to the state agreeing to cover the cost of replacing school buses. Union County Public Schools needs to purchase 20 school buses before next year, at a cost of $90,000 each. With the state agreeing to pick up that cost, it cuts $1.8 million from Union County’s projected deficit.
Davis outlined three areas that add up to the current projected deficit for Union County Public Schools. First, the district loses $7.5 million in federal funds, as that short-term funding expires. The state also informed the school system that unless something changes, they will require a $2.1-million cut in funding for the next fiscal year. This year, the state provided $186.3 million in funding, while federal grants added $36 million. The final part of the deficit comes from the extra five days of school Union County has to add this year.
Before they adjourned the 2011 session, state lawmakers passed a bill expanding the 180 day school year to 185, while keeping the opening and ending dates the same. In the same bill, lawmakers removed the requirement that school districts provide five teacher workdays each year, meaning districts have to figure out how to train teachers and add five new school days.
This year, Union County applied for and got an exemption, allowing it to hold off on the extra five days until next fall. However there’s no option to do the same for next fall, as the North Carolina Board of Education voted earlier this year to do away with the exemptions, except in extreme circumstances.
Davis estimates the five extra days will cost the district $300,000. That’s the cost to operate and run buses for five days, Davis said, at $60,000 a day.
“That’s an estimate,” Assistant Superintendent of Auxiliary Services Denise Patterson said. “Prices could go up.”
Since 2009, the school system has absorbed a total of $11.5 million in discretionary cuts imposed by the General Assembly, including $3.2 million in this budget cycle. While the teachers and teacher’s assistants were fully funded, Union County did cut four assistant principals, reduced in hours the equivalent of 14 non-instructional support positions; reduced career and technical education support and technology by $800,000; reduced transportation and classroom materials and supplies by more than $1 million.
Additionally, there was an 11-percent drop in central services staff, a 2-percent cut in maintenance, 6 percent drop in furniture and equipment and a 60-percent cut in funding for media assistants. All elementary schools lost their media assistants for the current year, as well as the elementary level Spanish language program. The district also had to absorb a 17-percent drop in both master’s degree and national board supplements, reducing that from $1,800 per year to $1,500.
“We’re being asked to do more with less,” school board member David Scholl said. “We’re adding more students, but the funding remains the same.”
State, local boards raise salaries
At the same time however, the school board authorized raises for administrative staff. In December, Associate Superintendent for Building Operations Mike Webb received an $8,000, or 6.7 percent, raise, and Assistant Superintendent Denise Patterson got a $15,000, or 14.6 percent, boost. Union County Weekly requested a list of central office salaries and found that some staff salaries had climbed in the last two years. Secondary Education Director Wanda Little has a yearly salary of $113,003. That’s up from $85,347, which is what the previous person in the job earned in 2009.
Middle School Education Director John Jones earns $97,161, which is up from the $82,929 that his predecessor earned in 2009. In both cases, chief communications officer Luan Ingram said the staff members kept the salaries they held at previous positions. Jones took over as Middle School Education Director in 2009, leaving Walter Bickett where he served as principal. Little worked as a principal at Forest Hills High School.
Two additional staff members also saw raises in the last two years, due to what Ingram labeled as state salary adjustments. That includes Exceptional Children Director Lori Cauthen, whose salary grew over the last two years from $94,359 to $97,135, and Career and Technical Education Director Lorraine Collins, whose salary rose from $77,030 to $80,066.
At the same time, the total amount spent on Central Office salaries dropped from $3 million in 2009 to $2.5 million this year, as seven positions were eliminated.
County funding in question
Davis said it was too early to determine what the district’s funding level from the county would be, as he just recently met with county manager Cindy Coto to start discussions. This year, the county provided $86.3 million for operating budget expenses. The funding remained the same from the previous year, however the number of students continued to climb.
Davis said he planned to record a video to be posted on the school district’s website, highlighting his concerns with the budget.
“That will sort of lay out the situation as it currently exists,” Davis said. “It will lay out what our limited options are. I think the key here is gonna be communication as we go forward, to see if there’s anything that can be done to mitigate that tremendous deficit we might be facing.”