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Photo courtesy of Alexander County Government

Alexander County Commissioners, Board Of Education Meet To Discuss Budget

The Alexander County Board of Commissioners participated in a joint meeting with the Alexander County Board of Education to discuss the 2024-2025 school system budget which includes budget cuts to address a shortfall of approximately $1.5 million.

The meeting agenda included the 2024-2025 state allotment projections, the impact of mandated salary increases for classified staff, five-year local allocation totals and comparisons, the average local allocation for 2023-2024 in North Carolina, and a tentative budget request to commissioners for the 2024-2025 school year.

Rob Arguelles, Chairman of the Alexander County Board of Education, said the school system has some current obstacles to overcome regarding a 1,000-student reduction in enrollment over the past 10 years, unfunded mandates from the state, and underutilization of facilities. Based on Census data, he believes enrollment will continue to decline in the coming years.

Josh Lail, Chairman of the Alexander County Board of Commissioners, said, “We’re in this together and we want what’s best for the school system and for the county. We want to figure out the best solution.”

Arguelles said the school system received ESSER funds (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) during the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding ends in June 2024 and the school board proposes to eliminate the 41 positions that were hired using those funds. In addition, the school board is proposing a reduction in force for 22 positions, while also considering attrition (retirements, resignations, etc.). These positions will total $4.2 million in operating cost reductions.

For 2024-2025, the school system will lose 10 positions (3 teachers, 5 teacher assistants, 1 counselor, and 1 instructional support) due to an enrollment decline of 93 students resulting in a $623,435 reduction in the state allotment.

Lail said he served on the school board from 2004-2012 and he recalled that enrollment was approximately 5,950 students back then.

“The can has been kicked down the road for years and now the current board and administration is having to deal with it,” Lail said. “You have a really tough scenario. I wish there had been a more proactive approach so we wouldn’t be sitting in the position we’re in now. With the county budget, there are hard decisions, and the citizens put their trust in us to make those hard decisions.”

Commission Vice Chairman Ronnie Reese, who served on the school board from 2002-2010, said the county’s allocation to the school system has increased 39.4 percent from 2014 to 2023.

“We are interested in helping, but everyone has to be good stewards of the county’s money,” said Reese. “I’m glad we’re having these discussions.”

Sharon Mehaffey, Alexander County Schools Chief Finance Officer, then presented information about mandatory salary increases. In 2021-2022, the state mandated a salary increase for all classified staff to at least $13 an hour, which totaled $739,927 for salary and benefits. In 2022-2023, an increase to $15 an hour was mandated, which totaled $777,993 for salary and benefits.

Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Hefner then reviewed the five-year local allocation change. In 2019-2020, the school board requested a $1,060,798 increase from the county and received an increase of $279,149. In 2020-2021, commissioners set the increase at $200,000, and the school system requested an additional $65,060 to cover the cost of benefits for locally paid positions. There was no request for a budget increase in 2021-2022 due to COVID-19 funding. In 2022-2023, the school board requested and received a $252,368 increase from the county to again cover benefits for locally paid positions. In 2023-2024, the school board requested a $1.9 million increase for numerous items and received an increase of $66,000.

Dr. Hefner also presented information about the average local allocation in North Carolina. She provided data from the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which states that the average local appropriation per pupil in NC is $2,158, with Alexander County ranking 72nd out of 100 counties at $1,609 per pupil.

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

Commission Chairman Lail said the rank of 72 is the base local appropriations per student, but if one considers the same report’s “local appropriations as a percentage of revenue per student,” the county ranks 29th in the state.

“It’s not that we’re trying not to give money to the school system, but we are tasked to manage taxpayer dollars in the best possible way,” said Chairman Lail. “We have to look at the big picture.”

Chairman Arguelles said, “The school board realizes we have a problem and we’re addressing it. We’re not asking for our county commissioners to bail us out. We’re taking ownership of it, the administration is taking ownership of it, and we’re fixing it.”

Arguelles then presented the tentative budget request for 2024-2025, which includes $46,016 for the fire academy program, $63,596 for an NC Pre-K shortfall, $170,919 for an increase in benefits for locally paid employees, and $623,435 to cover the loss of 10 positions due to an enrollment decline of 93 students, totaling a $903,966 increase.

He referred to the Census data and said the school system is going to continue to experience an enrollment decline.

“We, as a board, realize that we must come up with a school consolidation plan. We’ll be sharing details with you in order to best position ourselves for the future,” said Arguelles. “What’s imperative is to have your support as a county commission in such a school consolidation plan. This is going to be a difficult topic.”

Chairman Lail said he is interested in working together to plan for the school system’s future. He proposed that the finance committees for both boards begin discussions soon and meet regularly.

As for the current budget request, Chairman Lail said, “We will take your request under serious consideration and add this to our budget discussions and get back to you as soon as we can.”

According to county audit data and information from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), Alexander County’s allocation to the local school system has remained steady or increased annually over the past 10 years, from $5,250,000 in 2014 for 5,243 students to $7,317,428 in 2023 for 4,305 students.

[News release courtesy of Gary Herman, Alexander County Public Information Officer]