Macon County News, 8/21/14

With the new state budget, Jackson County will have to turn to the fund balance for about $500,000 to continue the current level of funding for teaching positions, teacher raises and teacher assistants.

Murrary touts the support from the county as being the basis for Jackson County to be in a strong financial state going into this year’s uncertain budget time.

“The county manager and county commissioners have not asked for local reversions and have made other cuts within their own organization to protect the school system,” said Dr. Murray. “They even expanded our budget to include a new resource officer that is now covering Smokey Mountain Elementary School. The county commissioners also increased our technology budget to help allow us to plan for a future computer one-to-one program, which also allowed us to increase our pilot programs in preparation of moving in that direction. Our local support also included funding for our system to complete a $1 million building addition at Blue Ridge School and an $11.5 million addition at Smoky Mountain High School. The collaboration and relationship between the school system and the county commissioners could not be stronger. We also have formed valuable relationships with our education partners such as SCC and WCU. Jackson County Schools will continue to progressively improve our system even with the challenges we are facing with decreasing state support.”

In addition to county support, Jackson County has taken the initiative to start cutting positions in hopes of bracing for the impact of the lack of funding from the state.

“We have been cutting back on teacher assistant positions when possible because of the trend to not fund them,” said Dr. Murray. “We have currently only done this through attrition or through transfers within our own district. The trend statewide will be to eliminate teacher assistants in all areas except K-1 classrooms. We currently have teacher assistants in K-1 classrooms, with some assistants in grades 2-3. We will be spending $242,500 out of the fund balance in order to accomplish the 22 percent cut in this budget. We are expecting another $24 million cut statewide next year. We are not sure how that will affect this system next year, but we will have to continue to reduce until we are only serving K-1 classrooms.”

Like so many other educators across the state, Jackson County recognizes the need for teacher assistants and hopes that the state level will make changes soon. “Our teacher assistants are valuable members of our educational family,” said Dr. Murray. “They are used appropriately and help reduce our class size by working with students in small groups and assisting the teacher in providing differentiated instruction in the classroom.”

It is not just funding for teaching positions that Jackson County is struggling with heading into the new school year. Murray explained that transportation funding for the district is currently being supported locally every year because of the lack of adequate funding available for mountain counties. “The new budget will require an additional $10,000 to meet the reduction of one percent found in this new budget,” he said.

The state issued a retirement rate increase from 14.69 percent to 15.21 percent which will cost Jackson County an additional $18,000, and that doesn’t consider the new teacher and employee raises that the county will have to cover as a result of having locally paid teachers on the payroll.

“The salary increases will also involve teachers that are not funded by the state and will result in their increases needing to be funded by Jackson County Public Schools,” said Dr. Murray. “We have 24 of these employees and with an average raise of 7 percent, then this increase, combined with the increase in benefit rates, will cost our system an additional $70,000.”

With a three percent reduction in funding for at risk students, Jackson County is losing $30,000 that is currently being used to fund tutoring and support for students who require additional assistance.

While Macon County is currently at a hiring stand still due to lack of funding for vacancies throughout the district, Jackson County is digging into the fund balance to fill the four positions open in the school system. “We currently have four certified positions open. A CTE teacher at Fairview; a high school math teacher at Blue Ridge Early College, an elementary teaching position at Blue Ridge School due to an increase in enrollment, and an interim math teacher at the School of Alternatives,” said Dr. Murray. “Our system hired early this year and we have been fortunate to complete hiring with the exception of the vacancies that have opened in the past week. We have the four positions posted and will be interviewing soon. JCPS will use local fund balance to employ high quality staff in these four vacant positions.”

During Monday night’s meeting of the Macon County School Board, local leaders got a taste of what the new budget means for the coming school year. “We have a shortfall of $185,000 due to the pay increase for the locally paid teachers,” Macon County Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin said. “We have a reduction of $288,000 in our TA allocation due to state cuts. So, we are needing to trim $473,000 from our budget, roughly seven teaching positions and five teacher assistant positions.”

Not only is Macon County scrambling to make ends meet for the school year set to start next week, they are looking toward next year and the anticipation of continued cuts. “Also, our second grade teacher assistants are funded with non-recurring funds this school year,” explained Dr. Baldwin. “This means that we should anticipate a similar reduction for TAs ($288,000) next year. We are in the process of absorbing two additional TAs and a receptionist in order to address this.”

Despite the grim financial outlook for the local districts, Dr. Murray remains positive in his duty to provide an optimal education.

“I am extremely proud of the job that our employees do daily to create opportunities for all children,” said Dr. Murray. “I still strongly feel that our public education system in the mountains is the best choice for parents. We are optimistic that our community stakeholders, higher education organizations, and our parents will continue to work together to place students as a priority in our region.”