By ANGELA FARR KING
The Alexander County Board of Education met for their regularly scheduled monthly meeting on Tuesday, May 9, at 6 p.m. In her Superintendent’s Report, Dr. Jennifer Hefner said she had spent the day with superintendents across the state and Governor Roy Cooper. She said she is very “concerned about the movement in North Carolina to dismantle public education.” Senate Bill 406 and House Bill 823 are sister bills entitled “Choose Your School. Choose Your Future.” These bills propose to expand the Opportunity Scholarships, also known as school vouchers, to be awarded to all students wishing to leave public schools and opt for private schools, not just those below a certain income.
The following is an overview of the Bills:
“Make all NC K-12 students eligible for opportunity scholarships, with grant amounts based on household income, beginning in 2023-2024, and eliminate the current forward funding of the program.
“Provide students the option to complete all high school requirements within 3 years, and offer a 2 semester scholarship to students graduating within 3 years that would be equal to the amount the student would have received in an opportunity scholarship.”
There are still discussions being had about changing the dates to 2024-2025 and to remove the parts establishing 3 year graduation options and related scholarships as these bills have been re-referred to the State Committee on Appropriations.
This means that opportunity scholarships would no longer be based on income for those families wishing to opt for private school. According to the NC Office of State Budget (OSBM) and Management, if passed, the Bills would result in the largest increase in Fiscal Year 2025-2026, affecting scholarships awarded the following year. If visiting their website, one will find the budget analysis focusing on Fiscal Year 2026-2027.
To summarize the changes, the OSBM website explains that “the local education agency (LEA), meaning each public school, would no longer receive state funding for that student ($7,684 estimated per-student average across LEAs). Instead, the State would provide a scholarship for that student to attend private school ($5,321 estimated average across income levels.)” All students will be eligible for the Opportunity Scholarships, but the amounts will vary based on income.
This is alarming to public schools across North Carolina because this could mean there will be approximately 26,522 New Opportunity Scholarship Recipients from students opting to leave public schools. This will mean a decrease in funding from the state for public schools in an approximate amount of $203.8 million dollars. What that could mean for Alexander County Schools is an increase from 216 students receiving Opportunity Scholarships in 2023-24 to 596 students receiving them in 2026-27, which would be a loss of state funding in the amount of -4%.
Dr. Hefner stated in her report, “I want the community to realize that when the funding is taken away from our school system to fund vouchers for private schools, the county commissioners must make up the difference or we will have to close community schools. The impact of the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Expansion on public school budgets depends on the percentage of new Opportunity Scholarship recipients who previously attended public school. The Bills direct that at least 50% of new scholarship funds must go to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.” In other words, lower income students will be a priority for the Opportunity Scholarships. She noted that this would be a very “steep funding cut at a time of critical teacher and staff shortages.”
Hefner also stated that she wanted to make her own personal quote on the matter, saying that “there are two entities in this county who have no oversight and no accountability and they are home schools and private schools.” She stated that “they should not receive tax dollars.”
Chris Campbell, Director of Maintenance, gave an update on Old Wittenburg School. He has consulted several real estate agents and all are in agreement that the land would be more valuable without the existing school building on it. A Lead and Asbestos Survey completed in October 2021 indicated that there is lead and asbestos throughout the school. The cost to remove all of the lead and asbestos would be somewhere over $1 million dollars. As Campbell noted, it will be difficult to find a buyer for the property who has to invest that much in a building. He also noted that the ACS Maintenance Department is still maintaining this property that is being plagued by vandalism and destruction. A decision was not made at this meeting about the property, but the board was presented with the full Lead and Asbestos Survey report and the estimated value of the land with and without the building.
Several students were honored at the meeting. Peyton Seitz from East Alexander Middle School, daughter of Danielle Harris and Macon Seitz, led the meeting in the Pledge of Allegiance. Several students from the Alexander Central High School Career and Technical Education Department attended SkillsUSA Competitions April 18-20 in Greensboro. Many were successful and were recognized.
Isaak Mauck won first place in the State for Information Technology Services. In Carpentry, Bentley Gilbert took third place, Heath Bentley took fourth place, and Harley Grogan took fifth place. In Electrical Construction Wiring, Canyon Echerd won second place and Jesse Anderson won fifth place. In First Aid and CPR, Emily Mull won fifth place. In Television (Video) Production, Grant Sizemore and Emma Coley worked together to win third place. In welding, Devin McCall won fourth place.
Dr. Hefner also recognized a large group from Ellendale Elementary that participated in the NC Gravity Games, which held a Soapbox Derby. Team 1 Driver, John Henry Herman, placed second overall, and Team 2 Driver, Paisley Teague, placed third. Hefner explained that 24 students helped in the process of building the cars and 16 were able to attend the race. Hefner noted that this was the first time any of the participants from Ellendale had competed in this competition and congratulated them on such a strong showing.
Brett Huffman, Principal from East Alexander Middle School, shared an update on EAMS. He said that since becoming principal on December 1, 2022, he has worked on communication and relationship building with staff and students. He also said the school is focusing on Academic and Student Behavior Improvements by utilizing common classroom assessments to inform instruction and by following a school wide behavior matrix.
Dr. Jennifer Hefner presented a report about the Virtual Academy Closure Study. There are currently 15 students enrolled in the Virtual Academy and some of their parents voiced concerns about it closing.
She said, “Funding to keep the Virtual Academy open has been requested from the county commissioners ($203,623) and we have not received a local allocation for the 2023-2024 year at this time. I would like to propose the Board wait until the June meeting to vote on this issue in hopes we will have our allocation at that time.”
Dr. Hefner also wanted to recognize teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, May 8-12, and thanked them for their service to Alexander County children.