By Jesse Wood
Members of the Watauga County Board of Education and administrators with the Watauga County Schools system met with the Watauga County Board of Commissioners during a budget retreat last week.
WCS Supt. Dr. Scott Elliott noted that the school system will request an increase in local funding because of “expected cost increases and to meet other significant needs,” according to a memo presented to the commissioners and County Manager Deron Geouque.
The needs highlighted in the memo are as follows:
$67,000 – Increase in Teacher Salaries – It is expected that the state will increase the first band of teacher salaries from $33,000 to $35,000. We currently have 30 locally paid teachers in this band.
$55,000 – Increase in Health and Retirement Benefits – The cost of employee health insurance and the school system contribution to the state retirement fund for locally paid employees is expected to increase by an anticipated 5%.
$140,000 – Local Supplement Increase – The local supplement has been frozen for 7 years and an increase in the local supplement for all employees would be a strong recruiting and retention tool.
$300,000 – Instructional Technology Needs – The district has used its fund balance to refresh the 1:1 program, but we must stay cognizant to the ongoing sustainability and much needed expansion of the program. We ask the County to be our partners in this commitment to meet the instructional technology needs of our students.
$250,000 – Instructional Resource Needs – Several essential materials needed for successful classroom learning need to be replaced or renewed, and the push toward digital textbooks is on the horizon. These costs are significant but a continual updating of our instructional materials is a must for us to provide the best quality education for all our students.
$40,920 – Driver’s Education Program – It is expected that the state will no longer be providing funds for the driver’s education program starting in 2015-16. Local funding will therefore be needed to fill this gap in providing classroom instruction and for crucial hands on driving experience.
$45,000 – PreK Program – Additional local funds are needed to continue the successful PreK program partnership we have in our district. The funding we receive from the state is not enough to maintain the program without assistance from local funds.
Elliott noted that the school system currently has a fund balance of $4,077,715. After $59,000 for carryover expenses, such as exterior painting, money for a substance abuse grant, the second payment for the 1:1 laptop, tablet initiative and other committed expenses, the fund balance for the 2015-16 school year would be $3,288,900.
Last year, the Watauga County Board of Education approved the 1:1 initiative, which put a laptop in the hands of every student from 8th to 12th grade and one laptop for every two students in 6th and 7th grade.
The three-year leasing program cost about $2.3 million with payments of $803,144 in the first year and two payments of $743,440 in the second year and third year.
Whenever it was noted that once the lease runs out in a couple years, the school system would once again look to funding a new laptop program.
After learning that the school system wouldn’t own the computers after paying more than $2 million for the leasing program, Commissioner Perry Yates said, “Good lord.”
“I understand you inherited this,” Yates added to Elliott.
This program was approved before Elliott came on board last year. He said he questioned whether or not this was the prudent route to take and said he is looking into cheaper alternatives to the Hewlett-Packard leasing program for the future.
Elliott said he hopes to cut the cost of providing this type of technology to students by half in the years ahead.
Elliott told the commissioners that once he started last summer, he immediately began evaluating operation procedures, facilities, capital needs, departmental budgets, personnel allocations and more for improvements in efficiency and cost reductions.
“I have a new perspective. I bring a fresh perspective to the way we do business,” Elliott said, adding that he’s “largely been very pleased” with how the school system is operating and commended staff and teachers that make the engine run – “very good people doing very hard, important work.”
The memo to the commissioners also outlined four other expenses that aren’t listed as high priorities:
- $120,000 for an indoor batting facility
- $117,000 for band instruments and uniforms
- $90 for an activity bus
- $95,000 for inclusive playground at Hardin Park
The commissioners heard about the indoor batting facility earlier this month. Commissioner Perry Yates noted that he liked School Board Member Ron Henries’ idea on how to fund the $120,000.
The project is expected to cost at least $190,000, according to representatives of Friends of Watauga Baseball and Softball organization, which has already raised $70,000 to go towards the facility.
Henries proposed the school board and the commissioners both put in $25,000 in their budgets for the next two years with the Friends organization raising $20,000 more in the next two years to fund this facility.
County Manager Deron Geouque told the commissioners later in the budget retreat that he spoke with Elliott, who said that he would go back to the school board to begin the due-diligence process on the facility to figure out what the overall facility would “really cost.”
The cost estimate from the Friends didn’t include plumbing or HVAC. To learn more about the proposed Will Dicus Indoor Batting Facility, click to previous story.
Commissioners and representatives of the school system also discussed Hardin Park, which as Commissioner David Blust said, is in “terrible shape.”
A new school is estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $30 to $35 million. County Manager Deron Geouque noted that the money being put into the system’s capital improvement plan is to maintain what is already in place and is nowhere near funded enough to pay for a new school.
While no motions or directions were made, the commissioners discussed the need of putting aside funds in order to be proactive about funding a new elementary school.
Commissioners won’t finalize the budget for several more weeks.