Funding squeeze prompts move, $500,000 still needed
The Alexander County Board of Education met on Wednesday, April 17, and approved the consolidation of some elementary and middle school bus routes. This measure is intended to provide cost savings to the system, which will soon face another budget hurdle from increased State retirement funding contributions.
Vice Chairman Brigette Rhyne was absent due to traveling to France to visit foreign exchange students her family had hosted.
Schools Transportation Director John McCurdy explained the process to the board and was on hand to answer any questions.
Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Hefner noted that all elementary and middle schools in the system submitted feedback on the proposal through the individual schools’ parent advisory boards.
Dr. Betsy Curry, Associate Superintendent, briefed the board on this feedback. She also related the system’s Transportation department budget. A chart shown by Curry stated that the Transportation Dept. had stayed about $1.1 million from 2014-15 through 2016-17, but had risen to $1,219,046 in 2017-18, and is projected to be $1,229,842 for 2018-19. The state-provided portion of these funds has dropped from $1,137,196 in 2014-15 to only $987,836 this school year. Thus, the local funds used for Transportation have increased to meet the deficit, from $47,876 in 2014-15, nearly quadrupling to $242,006 (projected) this year.
Curry noted that feedback included the following:
1. Behavior is the major concern at all schools, especially when it comes to having middle school students riding the same bus as elementary students.
2. Time is a concern in relation to perceived longer routes, later dismissal, and earlier or later start times for children. This had much to do with personal concerns, such as getting to work on time, how this might impact the homelife with family involvement in church and athletics.
3. Five of the nine schools expressed concern with a lack of time to respond and wish they had known earlier that this was a consideration.
4. Safety concerns due to overcrowding, a potential need to evacuate, a potential bus accident, and inclement weather dismissal.
5. Bus parking is a concern at both middle schools, especially during special events and athletics.
Positive feedback from the schools included:
1. Cost savings.
2. Siblings home at the same time.
3. Efficiency in routes.
4. Older siblings can watch out for younger siblings.
5. Less fuel expense.
6. More parking at elementary schools.
7. More consistency in bus drivers.
Suggestions for the consolidation were:
1. Consistency and quality of drivers would be benefical.
2. A monitor should be hired to offset safety concerns if the proposal moves forward.
3. Consolidate middle school and high school bus routes instead.
4. Seek feedback to see how the consolidation is going, if implemented.
5. Need assurance that ride times are not longer.
6. Put quality cameras on all the buses.
7. Make current bus routes more efficient.
8. Stricter rules on buses and consequences on buses.
9. Parents would like to see bus routes early (before school year).
10. Look at fleet busing.
11. Want transparency in current efficiency analysis.
Questions raised by school groups included:
1. Have we considered pairing high school and middle school?
2. Is there a detailed description of cost savings?
3. How will the money saved be used?
4. How will we fund cameras on all buses?
5. When was this first proposed?
6. Will the length of time students are on the bus be increased?
7. Can older siblings sit with younger siblings if we move forward?
8. How will the children getting dropped off earlier be supervised?
9. Can we pay monitors?
10. Who will lose their job?
11. Can a responsible 8th grade student help monitor?
McCurdy and others then discussed and answered some of the questions raised about pairing middle school and high school bus routes versus elementary/middle routes.
“Due to the distance between schools, especially between East and West Middle and the high school, it would require a significant time variance. Our real big savings is really on our outlying elementary schools,” said McCurdy.
Staff surveyed the number of students per bus in February 2019. McCurdy noted that ACHS had an average of 24 students on each bus in the mornings. Elementaries are also the same. Some are only running at one-third their maximum capacity.
“We have to drive so far, you might go two miles before you have to pick up another student,” he said. “We only have so much time. You can only pick up so many, with them that far apart.”
Board member Harry Schrum asked about parking at East and West middle schools. McCurdy noted that, during events, it would be a problem, but there are currently places at those schools to hold all the buses.
Schrum also asked how bus drivers are staffed. McCurdy said it would be spread between the middle and elementary schools.
The transportation director noted that some $160,000 to $200,000 could be saved by implementing the plan by parking eight buses.
The saved monies would be used by not doing a RIF (Reduction In Force) with staff, said Dr. Hefner.
McCurdy said a plan is underway to put better cameras on all the buses. He was informed by Sharon Mehaffey, School Financial Officer, that this could be funded possibly by 1/2 Cent Sales Tax money from the State, plus some of the savings from parking buses.
The proposal came about in October 2018, said Dr. Hefner.
McCurdy noted that some riders would have longer ride times than others. He said the issue of older and younger siblings riding together would probably be left to school principals.
Board member Matt Cooksey inquired about bus monitors. Dr. Hefner indicated that the plan was for cost savings, and she would not be looking at hiring school bus monitors. “I would be looking to use staff that we already have as those monitors,” she stated.
Schrum asked if the savings would be best put back in the General Fund, instead of for cameras. Dr. Hefner replied that in order to use 1/2 Cent Sales Tax, the school board must have permission to do so form the County Commissioners. “They have never questioned or denied anything we have asked; we have asked for safety equipment, asked to put up fencing and different things, and so I think the best thing to do would be to use that 1/2 Cent Sales Tax money to buy the cameras,” she said.
“Those monies are set aside for us, but they [commissioners] still have control over what we can use them for?” Schrum asked. The superintendent confirmed this is correct.
School Board Chairman David Odom thanked John McCurdy and Dee Watts of the Transportation Dept. for their work in the consolidation study and plan.
Odom noted that buses are more complicated and costly to repair today, and costs of insuring buses have increased. Confirming with McCurdy, Odom noted that there is one less employee at the bus garage now than there was 30 years ago.
“Anybody who pays attention to Alexander County Schools knows that since the Great Recession of 2008, we have struggled with funding. People only live in the present, they don’t remember the past,” said Odom. “We have not had a mass layoff in the Alexander County Schools system in the history of the school system. When all the other systems were closing schools, you hear it on the news, we’ve not closed a school. Unless you want to get back to Glade Creek and go to some of these small community, one-room school houses, but there was a new school that took its place.”
Odom lamented that after the “Save Our School” push when school consolidation was proposed, the Board has seen little public interest in school matters. He noted that a school system cannot raise operating revenues (cannot tax); the system is dependent on County Commission, State, and Federal allocations. The school system cannot borrow money (must ask commission to issue debt).
Also, Odom stated that the school systems and all NC local governments will be required to put in 6 percent more (by 2021) into the state employees’ retirement/insurance fund in order to balance the state fund’s budget. (This is not a benefit increase.)
“That, in itself, is over half a million dollars [for 12 months for the school system],” said Odom. “That cow is going to come home this summer, for Alexander County Schools. In similar proportion, it’s going to come home for Alexander County Government, across the street, and, at a much lesser rate, because we only have 21 employees, for the Town of Taylorsville.”
“That is one reason why we asked the Transportation Dept. to see if we could save some money, because we’re at a point where we have to cut our overhead costs,” said Odom.
He went on to state the school board spends its local appropriation from county commissioners (which has increased the last few years) for: supplements. These are paid to school system employees as an employee retention tool. They spent $1,774,813 on local supplements. Another $983,000 goes for utilities.
“We have millions of dollars sitting in School Capital Fund that can be used for sticks and bricks, and heat pumps. The problem is, we can’t spend that money to pay teachers or teacher aides, or balance our budget shortfall in the Transportation line item. We’re sitting on an opportunity where we could fix our schools and build what needs to be built, but why would you add square footage when you have less students?” Odom added.
He reiterated that the State needs to raise its level of funding to pre-recession levels.
Cooksey asked about the number of students riding buses compared to the total number of school system students. McCurdy replied about 1,838 ride buses. McCurdy noted this number has decreased 120 to 130 students per year in recent years. Three buses were parked this year. Dr. Hefner said that, in all, about 4,778 students are enrolled in the school system.
Board member Scott Bowman noted that many people in his district are having issues with the possible discipline problems of consolidated buses (language, vaping, etc.) He asked McCurdy if a couple routes could instead be cut at the high school and save money. McCurdy said not picking up until after 6 a.m. and still getting the buses back to school to enable eating school breakfast is the issue. School Board member Caryn Brzykcy suggested that mature middle schoolers could be bus monitors.
After about an hour of discussion, the school board voted 5-1 in favor on bus route consolidation (Bowman voting against, Rhyne absent).