By MICAH HENRY
Alexander County Schools administrators, principals, some staff and selected parents met on Monday, Sept. 18, at Alexander Central High School to discuss paths forward to address a looming school budget shortfall.
The problem has evolved due in part to a gradual decline in student enrollment during the past decade or more, explained Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Hefner, during an introductory portion in the Auditorium. Since 2013, the county school system has lost 953 students. (The county has lost 829 residents in the past decade.) She also cited reasons including approximately 1,000 students choosing either private school or homeschool instead of public schools, declining birth rates, loss of state low-wealth funds, rising benefit costs, and the pending loss of emergency funds from COVID legislation ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding in 2024. The loss of about $2.7 million in ESSER funds will potentially affect 40-42 positions, Hefner stated.
The fund balance had $1,905,388 left at last report. Some fund balance is required for cash flow to operate the system.
The Alexander County Commissioners allocated $7,317,428 this year from the county budget for the schools.
Faced with these parameters and concerns, Dr. Hefner asked the Parent Focus Groups to separate, by school, and discuss possible ways of finding $1.5 million in savings or funds. The individual school groups would then return to the Auditorium to reconvene after one hour.
The parents are members of the schools’ Parent Advisory Groups, who were approved by the school board at the August meeting. These are parents who volunteer to work with principals to problem-solve at individual schools. Their terms range from one to four years. Sixty-nine parents were invited to Monday night’s meeting.
School principals and system Central Office staff facilitated the school group breakout sessions and served as group reporters to log parents’ ideas.
Upon returning to the Auditorium just before 8:00 p.m., Dr. Hefner called forth each group leader, in turn, to present findings to the whole gathering.
The findings suggested were:
• Consolidate from 1 to 3 schools (the system has a 7,000 student capacity, with current use of less than 4,300), and possibly try K-6, K-8, or one middle school. The system is currently K-5 in elementary, grades 6-8 in the middle schools, and grades 9-12 at ACHS.
• Consolidate courses on foreign languages (to teach only Spanish or drop levels III and IV of foreign languages)
• Analyze/consolidate student enhancements/electives such as chorus, art, physical education, and Advanced Placement classes
• Sell or lease unused school properties
• Evaluate each position for
possible attrition as people leave/retire
• Eliminate unnecessary staff positions
• Compare Central Office staff percentage to other school
• Eliminate classes with low enrollment
• Enact an additional sales tax designated for school funding
• Implement cost savings
• Consolidate Learning Management Softwares (LMSs) to one program or eliminate all
• Educate the public about the fund balance dwindling
• Lobby legislators for more flexibility in school spending from various state fund sources
• Request parents to ask county commissioners to increase funding allocation to schools
• Reevaluate school calendar (possible 4-day weeks, still need 1,024 instructional hours per year)
• Drop the 1:1 (one device per student) requirement on technology devices
• Implement energy saving (unplug computers, adjust thermostats on evenings/weekends)
Board of Education Vice Chair Robert Arguelles will hold a Town Hall meeting on the school budget concerns Tuesday, October 3, at 6:00 p.m. at the Auditorium for input from community members.