School board gets budget big picture at retreat
By Rebecca Rider
SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education closeted itself away for six hours Tuesday to get a big-picture look at its budget needs for the next several years.
Board members discussed everything from student numbers to repair bills to the district’s technology usage. Board Chairman Josh Wagner said that from the outside, it may look like the board is just pointing out problems. But the goal, he said, is for the board and school leaders to get their bearings.
“We’re trying to put a systematic plan together to try and understand what the needs are,” Wagner said.
Hopefully, the process will make the board accountable to the community in the future, he said.
Superintendent Lynn Moody called the all-day retreat, held in the Wallace Educational Boardroom, a “holistic look” at the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, as well as future needs.
“So it’s all the big pieces to the puzzle that we need to keep you updated,” she said.
The meeting started with a close look at the affects of charter schools on local student populations. In the past several years, Moody said, the number of charter schools in North Carolina has doubled, and public schools across the state are reporting fewer students.
In 2011, Rowan-Salisbury Schools lost 88 students to five charter schools. This year, a total of 430 local students attended 20 charter schools. Approximately 161 of those did not attend charter schools last year, resulting in an unexpected $1.2 million loss for the district.
“So we have to now figure out how we’re going to come up in the difference in this money that we haven’t budgeted for,” Moody said.
The likely outcome, she said, is that the money will come from the fund balance.
She also cautioned the board that should a local charter school be forced to close, the district would be legally obligated to absorb all its resources.
“Including all their debt,” she said.
About one in four charter schools close, she said, and when they do, local school systems have to take on the extra students, teachers, the school building and any financial obligations.
Losing students to charter schools also hit hard because the district is already experiencing enrollment decline. Moody encouraged the board to begin focusing on marketing.
“We are doing so many things so well, and I know that we are the best choice,” she said, “but how do we tell people that we are the best choice?”
Moody mentioned students’ ability to take home one-to-one computer devices as a plus that most other school districts don’t have.
“That’s a huge advantage for our students,” she said.
Board member Richard Miller agreed with the suggestion,and proposed that the board talk to members of the Chamber of Commerce and the Realtors Association about the school district’s recent push forward in test scores. The district has changed a lot over the past few years, and families looking to move to the area deserve to be in the know, he said.
“It’s not still your father’s Rowan Oldsmobile,” he said.
The board also discussed a state-mandated policy that would require districts to decrease average class sizes by three students in kindergarten through third grade. The General Assembly did not fund that mandate or increase teacher allotments.
For Rowan-Salisbury Schools, it would mean an additional 38 teachers and $2.2 million.
“We don’t have $2.2 million, as you well know,” Moody said.
At a Dec. 12 business meeting, the board sent a letter to the General Assembly asking for full funding of the measure. When the legislature met last week, it did not discuss the policy, as many districts had hoped it would.
“The later they wait, the more complicated it becomes. Because we’re starting budget now; we’re starting teacher allocations now,” Moody said.
In order to fund the mandate, schools across the state — Rowan-Salisbury included — may be forced to eliminate all nonessential instructional positions, such as art, music and P.E. teachers.
Rowan-Salisbury Schools faces additional problems. At the end of December, the district had 38 classroom vacancies. Staff are unsure if they will be able to fill the additional required positions.
Another problem, Moody said, is that kindergarten classrooms are required to have an attached restroom.
“We don’t just have empty classrooms with bathrooms all over the district,” she said.
The board also discussed capital needs. Currently, staff estimate that the school system has more than $200 million in repair and upfitting needs. The board spent several hours going through the needs of each school, looking at condition, areas of largest need, student capacity and costs to meet all repair needs. Knox Middle School has the highest repair needs, with an estimated $40 million in renovations. Salisbury High came in next, with an estimated $13 million in needs.
Knox is recommended for replacement, and board members flagged it as the system’s next project after completion of the western elementary school. The board voted unanimously to form a committee to consider long-range capital needs. Details on the discussion will appear in Sunday’s paper.
In other business, the board:
- Discussed training teachers in the literacy training program Orton-Gillingham.
- Heard a salary study presentation by School Efficiency Consultants that recommends a $3,000 minimum supplement for teachers and an $11,500 supplement increase for principals. The increases would make Rowan-Salisbury schools competitive with other local districts. No decisions were made.
- Discussed the possibility of a weighted staffing model that would provide high-needs schools with additional staff. Moody said that moving to such a staffing model without increasing the budget could require repurposing of positions and redistribution of some staff.
- Discussed the possible renewal of its lease with Apple Inc. The corporation provided devices for the district’s one-to-one initiative three years ago, and the district is in the final year of its contract.
Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.
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