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WCS Supt. Scott Elliott To Commissioners: Thanks For Budget Increase, WCS Needs More

By Jesse Wood

The Watauga County Board of Commissioners heard from the Watauga County Board of Education and administration with the county school system again regarding the 2015-16 fiscal-year budget this past week.

The message from Watauga County Schools Supt. Scott Elliott was simple: We appreciate the recommended funding level, but it still doesn’t meet the needs of the school system.

According to the recommended budget, the county will fund the WCS system $13,148,874. See the breakdown (which doesn’t include a $575 grant) below:

  • Annual Appropriation for Current Expenses: $12,403,036
  • Current Capital Outlay: $275,000
  • COLA Contigency: $95,263
  • Capital Projects Set Aside: $375,000

This is compared to what the school system requested:

  • Annual Appropriation for Current Expenses: $13,044,990
  • Current Capital Outlay: $996,525
  • COLA Contigency: $95,263
  • Capital Projects Set Aside: $1,482,600

In highlighting the budget, County Manager Deron Geouque noted that the upcoming budget-year cycle increases current and future capital funding for Watauga County Schools by 36.8 percent. The recommended funding level increases current expense and capital outlay $440,202 over the current year.

“The Watauga County Schools’ Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is scheduled to receive $375,000 for fiscal-year 2015-16. The current CIP balance for the School System is $881,264. The goal is to provide $500,000 in County funds for future capital and $750,000 in State and County funds for current capital projects by FY 2019-2020,” according to the budget message from Geouque.

In praising the county for its proposed increase in appropriations, Elliott said he was trying to “send a polite mixed message” in an effort to secure more funds for the school.

“We have tremendous needs. I am sure there’s never been a year you haven’t heard that from a superintendent, but it’s true. There are a lot of needs that didn’t make it in our budget,” Elliott said. “… I wouldn’t be doing my job advocating for the school system if I said the funding for our needs is adequate at any level.”

In a memo to county staff, Elliott itemized “major current expense increase requests,” some of which are addressed in the recommended budget:

  • $81,342 for first tier of teacher salaries’ increase from $33,000 to $35,000
  • $176,526 for $200 supplement increase for each employee
  • $95,263 for 1.5 percent for each employee
  • $40,920 for driver’s education program
  • $45,000 to sustain and support NC PreK program
  • $102,222 for athletics department repair and maintenance at all schools
  • $54,933 for exceptional children teacher position
  • $30,229 for exceptional children teacher assistant position
  • $31,990 for additional month of employment for 6 assistant principal positions
  • $76,130 for IT support specialist, admin assistant and additional month of employment for help desk technician positions
  • $250,000 for curriculum and instructional materials
  • $37,086 for $500 stipends for each mentor
  • $53,833 for 5 percent health insurance increase
  • $18,995 for 2 percent retirement insurance increase

As was mentioned during the budget retreat by both commissioners and WCS representatives, schools are receiving less funds from the N.C. Lottery and the N.C. General Assembly has retracted funding for some things that are mandated by the state.

In the memo to county staff, Elliott wrote: “Items such as mentor stipends and the driver’s education costs were provided by the state at one point but are now unfunded mandates that we are forced to ask the county to fund.”

The school district also outlined these capital outlay needs:

  • $280,000 to upgrade electrical service at three schools
  • $285 to upgrade LED lighting at three schools
  • $90,000 to access control systems at all K-8 schools for increased security
  • $728,654 for the 1:1 initiative when the current leasing program expires
  • $48,571 for band/orchestra needs including uniforms
  • $25,000 for utility van
  • $90,000 for athletic bus

During the joint session, Commissioner Jimmy Hodges asked for an assessment on where teacher salaries currently stand, setting off an extended discussion that included topics such as increasing the supplement and avoiding attrition of excellent teachers to neighboring states and other school districts held in high regard across the state.

(Last year, the state ranked 46th nationally in teacher pay.)

Elliott noted that teacher salaries for those in WCS, which is regarded as one of the highest-performing districts in the state, doesn’t “compare favorably” to other high-performing districts such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro and that the cost of living in the High Country must be factored in, too.

But he also mentioned that teacher salary isn’t the only metric that retains teaches. He noted that the quality of life, the professional development, quality of facilities and the district environment all create the “right conditions” for retaining and attracting the best teachers.

WCS Human Resources Director Dr. Stephen Martin noted that the supplement hasn’t increased in seven or eight years and the supplement given to Watauga teachers ranks among the “middle of the pack” across the state. It was also noted that WCS and other districts struggle to find quality teachers in math, special education and the middle grades.

With a disclaimer that he wasn’t suggesting taking away any supplement to current teachers, County Manager Deron Geouque threw out an idea, suggesting that the school board look at different supplemental pay options.

The district was requesting to increase the supplement by $200 to $2,555, which would be more or less symbolic that the district values its teachers and other employees.

One option Geouque suggested was to put the supplemental increase money in a pot and offering bigger chunks of the money to potential employees in fields that are more difficult to attract higher-quality candidates. While an extra $200 may be seen as a token, his point was that if you offered high-quality candidates in hard-to-fill positions, the money “would really help you out to target” those teachers.

In the end, the recommended allocations to the WCS didn’t change, according to Finance Director Margaret Pierce.