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Schools request funding increase from Alexander County

School Board, Administrators, County Commission Joint Meeting
Dr. Denita Dowell-Reavis

For immediate release: 3.29.24

Alexander County School leaders are asking the county for a $900,000 increase to cover next year’s budget. The amount would put the total school system request at $8.2 million in local funding for 2024-25, or about 15% of the county’s total general fund budget. Without the increase, the school system may have to cut 10 more positions.

The Alexander County Board of Education and Central Office staff met with Alexander County Commissioners March 28th to discuss county leaders' financial support for public schools. The BOE voted in December to spend nearly a million dollars in district fund balance to upright this year’s school system budget. The system’s fund balance is now less than a million dollars. According to Alexander County’s last audit, the county has a combined fund balance of more than 24 million dollars. The county savings has loosely been discussed as a way to help fund a new courthouse.

Alexander County School leaders say declining enrollment, increased costs for faculty benefits, and an uptick in the cost of doing business has created a tight budget. The district is reducing staff numbers for next year due, in part, to a loss in federal funding. The federal money was awarded to schools to help recover from the pandemic. 

During the joint session, Board of Education Chair Robert Arguelles told commissioners the increase in money would cover the fire academy, increases in benefits for staff, a shortfall in PreK funding, and a projected loss in state funding due to declining enrollment. The state has projected Alexander County Schools will lose 93 students for the 2024-25 school year putting enrollment at about 4,100.

Arguelles listed challenges for the school budget to the commissioners including the enrollment dip, benefit increases, and an under utilization of facilities. Last fall, the district took input from parents, staff, and community members on how to shore up the school system's budget. The most frequently suggested changes included cutting and consolidating positions and consolidating schools. Alexander County has four of the seven elementary schools with enrollment hovering around 200 or fewer students. 

Arguelles told commissioners that the district has cut staff and continues to make cuts. “We’re taking ownership of it. We have to find a way to manage it,” said Arguelles.

He said the next step is school merger. “We realize we must come up with a school consolidation plan. What’s imperative is to have your support.”

Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Hefner asked commissioners to work toward the average in the state for local support for students. Alexander County’s per pupil spending is at $1,609.

“I want us to work together towards that state average of $2,158. That would make me proud,” Hefner said.

According to the Public School Forum, Alexander County ranks 72nd of 100 North Carolina counties in local money per pupil. 

Commission Chair Josh Lail said based on the ability to pay the county ranks 29th.

“When I look at our version of the statistics, the numbers and funding stuff, I think we’re doing okay especially considering what we have to work with.” Lail complained that Alexander County lacks a robust tax base to pull money from. 

Lail, a former school board member, said he supports public schools and has children at Bethlehem Elementary and West Alexander Middle now. 

“A lot of times in the public we’re made out to be the big mean, don’t want to give anybody money, but that’s not the case. I mean why would I cut off my nose to spite off my face,” said Lail.

Part of the funding dilemma results from the pandemic. The federal government gave schools money to help students recover emotionally and academically from Covid-19. In Alexander, the money was used to hire 41 positions: nurses, counselors, social workers, tutors and more. That money expires September of this year, so the district was already planning to cut back. 

In February, the school board asked district administrators to begin cuts for the upcoming year using the district’s reduction in force policy. District staff have identified cutting 22 positions would help balance the county schools’ budget. Despite those adjustments in staffing, the district will need the $900,000 to help provide a local supplement to staff based on state salary increases and to avoid cutting more positions. 

Another factor impacting local school funding is the state’s expansion of private school vouchers. Starting next year, vouchers will be offered to families at any income level. When they originally went into effect in 2013, the vouchers were called “Opportunity Scholarships” and were intended for low-income families and students. With the state offering money to all families, Alexander County Schools could likely lose students to area private schools.

The joint session also explored the population growth of the county, which was negative between 2010 and 2020. Based on census data, the county’s projected population for the next 20 years is expected to grow less than one percent. What’s worse is the number of those new to Alexander County who are school-aged is projected to decline by three percent in the next 20 years.

School Board member Brigette Rhyne has insisted that the two boards meet. She defended the system’s request for next year’s funding.

“We have to ask. As a school board member, I’m not doing my job if I don’t ask for help,” said Rhyne.

Commissioner Ronnie Reese commended school leaders saying the staff cuts underway showed good faith on the system’s part.

“You are interested in working on something instead of just ‘bail us out, bail us out’”, said Reese.

Both the board, administration, and commissioners talked about working together to continue to find funds for the school system. While no timelines were drawn, the group discussed meeting quarterly to review budgets.