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Budget cuts affect students every day

Rowan-Salisbury and Kannapolis students feel the effects of a struggling economy every day as they walk into classrooms with fewer support personnel, supplies and training for teachers

They aren’t the only ones.

Since the recession hit in 2008, schools across North Carolina have had to continuously tighten their budgets as the state continues to cut funding for public schools.

“The lack of funding has really hurt us,” said Will Crabtree, director of business operations for Kannapolis City Schools.

He added that all North Carolina public schools are in the “same boat” regardless of their size or location.

“I think the biggest effect has been in support services,” said Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody, adding that they’ve had to cut support personnel, such as teacher assistants, school nurses, behavior support specialists or school resource officers.

“We’re just not able to offer students as much support in ways that make them more effective in the classroom,” Moody said.

“It all goes to support the infrastructure,” said Rowan-Salisbury Chief Financial Officer Tara Trexler. “We’ve eroded the infrastructure that gives support to the students.”

Moody said that students suffer academically when they face the health or emotional struggles those support services are aimed toward helping.

“It’s in all those support roles,” she said.

Crabtree said that fewer support personnel also means less one on one time between the students and an adult.

“Most of the textbook money was cut out,” he said, adding that funds for instructional supplies were drastically cut and the district also lost all funding for mentors and professional development.

“Professional development was a biggie, I think,” Trexler said, adding that for years, the focus has been on not cutting people.

With fewer support staff around to help, however, it’s even more important to make sure teachers are adequately trained.

The Rowan-Salisbury School System is also in the process of dramatically changing the way teachers teach, making professional development more important than ever, Moody said.

“We weren’t able to support them adequately,” Trexler said.

The district also had to cut its tuition reimbursement program for staff members who were working on their master’s degrees or certifications.

Kannapolis City Schools used to pay mentor teachers, but this year had to cut the program from their budget.

“That’s something we used to be able to do, but just can’t do,” Crabtree said.

He added that as money continues to be cut from their budget, expenses continue to rise.

“Now we’re having to serve more students with les money per pupil,” he said.

“The drastic increase in benefits cost,” Crabtree added.

During the 2008-09 school year, a beginning teacher’s benefits cost the school system $2,477 per year. This year, that cost has risen to $5,419 – more than double what it was five years.

“That just compounds the issues you have,” Crabtree said.

“To me that’s one of the biggest complexities looking at the changes from year to year,” Trexler said.

The economy started its descent during the 2008-09 school year, resulting in several days of unpaid furlough for school employees. The following year, budget cuts began to pour in.

“Prior to that, we would always approach it as an expansion request on the state level,” Trexler said. “There was a pretty big slash the first year.”

During the 2009-10 school year, the state cut all funding for non-instructional support, such as custodians, clerical workers and substitute pay.

“When cuts first started occurring, we tried to cut everything other than personnel,” Crabtree said. “That is our most valuable resource.”

Instead, they would use attrition and not fill positions when they were vacated.

Unfortunately, it got to a point several years ago, that the district had to lay off some of their employees.

We’ve really worked hard not to have to let someone go,” he said.

The district used federal stimulus money to cover those expenses for roughly three years.

Since then, some of that money has been restored, but schools have also had to turn to local money or their fund balance, or savings, to offset state cuts.

Currently, the district has seen $30 million in cumulative cuts from the state, and more than $1 million in cuts from the county.

Each school system’s finances are divided into three different categories – capital funds, enterprise funds and operating funds.

Rowan-Salisbury’s capital funds run through Rowan County, and Kannapolis’ run through both Cabarrus and Rowan counties. These funds come from sales tax revenues and can only be used for capital projects.

The enterprise fund is the district’s food services.

The fund’s largest revenue source is federal reimbursements for free and reduced lunch, followed by food sales from students who pay. Food cost and salaries are its main expenditures.

“The goal is to have a net zero,” Trexler said.

The school system’s largest category is operating funds, which includes salaries, supplies and contracts.

The district’s operations budget is funded by the North Carolina General Assembly, local funds, federal allotments and grants.

During the 2013-14 school year, 67 percent of operating funds came from the state, 10 percent was from the federal government, 22 percent was from local money and less than 1 percent was from grants.

Typically, 82 percent of those funds go toward salaries and benefits, 10 percent is used for supplies and materials and 8 percent is for purchased services.

“The legislative process is how our budget is built on the state side,” Trexler said. “They give us these pots of money – these categories.”

Those categories include central office staff, teachers, teacher assistants, instructional support, principals, career and technical education, classroom materials, textbooks and other items.

Sometimes cuts are based on dollar amounts, while other times they’re based on a certain number of positions. Cuts can be discretional, which allows the district to choose what to cut, or specified by the state.

Over the past six years, 372.5 positions have been eliminated from the school system – 38 from the central office and 334.5 school based positions.

Local funds are used to pay for the things that aren’t eligible for state funding, such as maintenance salaries, financial audit, utilities and insurance.

“We have to have local money to do that,” Trexler said.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that we get one large sum of money and we have the flexibility to spend it,” Moody said. “Each one of those categories has specific allocations.”

“People often thing capital money and general fund are the same and its not,” she added.

As available funds continue to shrink, districts are working to be able to provide the basics, as well as improve students’ educational experience.

“We’re doing a number of things,” Moody said. “We’ve repurposed within our remaining budgets.”

That includes cutting down on paper and workbooks costs to be able to afford better technology, or eliminating media assistants in order to hire literacy coaches.

“We’re trying to tie it to our strategic plan,” Moody said.

The Rowan-Salisbury School System has also started the process of zero-based budgeting.

Other expenses, such as elementary field trips that would otherwise be cut, are funded through grants.

Trexler is currently working on a proposal for the school board to potentially hire a grant writer who could obtain large grants free up monies in the operating fund.

Crabtree said Kannapolis City Schools has implemented a very successful energy savings program to cut down on costs.

“There’s not a lot you can do, other than just being mindful of where you’re putting your resources,” he said. “We’re trying to manage our resources the best that we can.”

The Rowan-Salisbury School System is also works to partner with outside organizations, such as Communities in Schools, the YMCA and Crosby Scholars, or companies such as Milliken to be able to provide services or opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available due to a lack of funds.

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