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Avery Commissioners Request Public Records Information from Avery County Schools

By Tim Gardner

The Avery County Board of Commissioners has formally requested public records information from the Avery County Board of Education to disclose how funding provided by the County to the school system has been specifically appropriated and/or spent.  

The commissioners include: Chairwoman Martha Hicks, Vice-Chairman Tim Phillips, Dennis Aldridge, Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr., and Robert Burleson.

Upon authorization by the commissioners, the public records were requested in correspondence (both via United States Mail and email) dated August 25, 2023 by Michaelle Poore, attorney for the County Government, to Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman.

The public records requested were: 

1-A list of all hourly and salaried employees indicating total compensation, including any bonuses, supplements, and any other compensation.  This would exclude the employer’s obligation for Social Security and Medicare payments.

2-Any reports showing line item budgets or budget items

3-Detailed reports for all revenues and expenses, by line items

4-All capital expenditure reports

The Board of Education met in special session on August 31 to discuss complying with the public records request, which is required by law.

All its members were present including: Chairman John Greene, Vice-Chairwoman Kathey Aldridge, Pat Edwards, and Randy Singleton. Other school system officials present included: Dr. Brigman, Chief Financial Officer Faith Cope, and Board of Education attorney Chris Campbell.

The Board of Education has a vacancy, which has not been filled since the resignation of Ruth Shirley last year, leaving it with four members instead of the usual five. 

Hicks told High Country Press that she and her fellow-commissioners all agreed to make the public records request because “we want an itemized list of how all funds provided by the county government to the school system are being used as are stewards of the taxpayers’ money because we appropriate it to agencies and causes, and all taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent.”

She added that the Board of Commissioners, County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr., Dr. Brigman, and the Board of Education “have a good working relationship and are very respectful of each other.”

Greene offered High Country Press the following statement about the public records request: “The Avery County Board of Commissioners submitted a request to the Avery County Board of Education for some financial information. After talking with the County Commission’s attorney, it is our understanding that the request was for nothing specific, but more of a general nature. As always, the Avery County Board of Education is responding promptly with the request. Our finance office is compiling the information to give to the commissioners as quickly as possible. 

“Our most current and previous audits are readily available and exceptionally clean. I would like to thank our finance department for the many staff hours required to comply with the request, while at the same time working diligently at a critical time of the year to ensure our day-to-day financial concerns are taken care of. We appreciate our good and ongoing working relationship with the Avery County Commissioners.” 

A county budget in the amount of $37,131,681.00 for the 2023-2024 Fiscal Year was adopted by the commissioners at their regular monthly meeting on June 5.

Always one of the largest parts of the county budget is the funding provided to Avery County’s public schools.

The school system’s funding by the county is often the second highest only behind public safety, and is so again in the 2023-2024 budget.

Public safety was allocated $11,820,905.00 for 2023-2024.

And for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, the Avery County School System (Board of Education) requested $5,731,800.00 in operational funding. That is a 16.5 percent increase over the last fiscal year (2022-2023), when its request was $4,920,000.00.  The county commissioners funded last fiscal year’s operational funding request by the school system in full. 

For fiscal year 2023-2024, the county commissioners allocated the school system $5,400,000.00. That amounts to a 9.8 percent increase in operational funding provided from the last fiscal year, although it is $331,800.00 less than the school system requested for the upcoming fiscal year.

In capital funding to the school system, the county commissioners allocated $750,000.00.  That is a 15.4 increase from the last fiscal year, when they gave the school system $650,000.00.  

The school system requested $800,000.00 in capital funding last fiscal year (2022-2023).  According to County Finance Officer Caleb Hogan, school system officials did not request a certain financial amount in capital funding for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, but instead gave the county an amount of $5,483,534.00 that would cover costs of the system’s needs.    

Barrier, Jr. said that approximately 20 percent, including General Fund Debt Service, of the county’s 2023-2024 fiscal year budget is allocated to Avery County Schools.

Avery County Finance Officer Caleb Hogan noted that $2,163,000.00 of the school capital funding needs would be for the purchase and installation of a new roof for Cranberry Middle and Freedom Trail Elementary schools, which are housed under the same roof.

He added that the county is working to obtain some state financial assistance and grant funds to help pay for the roof.

Hogan also said that the county funds 77.33 school staff positions locally and the rest are funded through state and federal appropriations. He added that the county also joins the state in providing funding for the pre-Kindergarten program in all the elementary schools in the county and that “because of the Board of Commissioners’ commitment to education, they help provide funding to help make that program tuition free.”

According to Faith Cope, Chief Financial Officer for Avery County Schools, the county provides a recurring amount of $70,000.00 (5 percent) for the pre-Kindergarten program.

Hogan noted that the county’s General Fund Debt Service budget total of $1,294,789.00 is entirely designated for the Avery County School System’s capital needs, specifically at Avery County High School and Banner Elk Elementary School. 

Another part of the total $6,607,773.00 the commissioners allocated for education funding in the 2023-2024 fiscal year budget is for Mayland Community College, which will receive $457,773.00.  That includes $427,773.00 in operational funding and $30,000.00 for capital funding. Both amounts were the same as requested by college president, Dr. John Boyd. 

County departments requested $3,597,888.00 in capital outlay expenditures for 2023-2024.  The new budget includes $1,708,767.00 of those requests.