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Gates County Schools face RIF

GATESVILLE – Their pleas found sympathetic ears, but a tight budget year proved as a stumbling block.

The Gates County Board of Commissioners approved the FY 2015-16 budget here last week….a $13.86 million financial spreadsheet that maintains level funding for most departments as well as the current 64-cent tax rate (per $100 of value).

What the new budget, which takes effect on July 1, didn’t include was additional funding for Gates County Public Schools. The majority of the public comments heard prior to the new budget’s adoption supported a request made by Gates County Schools Superintendent Dr. Barry Williams for an additional $896,000. Instead, the Commissioners maintained the school system’s current level (2014-15) of local funding ($2,708,000).

Williams said without the added funding, the Gates County Board of Education had no other choice than to implement a previously discussed Reduction in Force (RIF) plan.

“The state has already cut $455,000 from Gates County Public Schools,” Williams noted. “When the funding decreases from the state level, we need additional local funds, so as to reduce the impact felt by our children through the reduction of educational services and programs. The state has increased the burden on you, our county commissioners, to support us.”

Williams said the RIF came down to basic math, stating, “When you have more positions than you have money, you have to cut positions, terminate contracts, for employees.”

The RIF comes after the local school system was forced to use $326,315 of its fund balance at the start of FY 2014-15 to hire state mandated reading resource teachers.

“Those teachers made a great impact on our young students moving from the third to the fourth grade,” Williams noted. “But keeping them employed is something we can’t keep doing because eventually our fund balance will run out. Moving more fund balance ($325,006) to this year’s budget brings that amount down to $200,000.”

At the May 29 meeting of the Gates County Board of Education, Williams told his board that without a minimum of $571,000 of added funding from the Commissioners, the school system would have to cut (RIF) a middle school reading coach, art teachers at the middle school and high school, an elementary school dance teacher, a CTE teacher, and a high school science instructor. Additionally, one assistant principal would have their hours cut from 12 to 10 months. Also affected would be a finance department assistant, two part-time custodians, a technology assistant, a testing assistant, a stipend for the Athletic Director, a reduction in district-wide travel expenses, the consolidation of the band programs at the high school and middle school, two School Resource Officers and eliminating a daycare operated by GCPS at Gatesville Elementary School.

The latter cut struck a nerve among those following Dr. Williams to the podium. All supported New Beginnings Day Care.

Claire Whitehurst, a member of the Gates County School Board, said teachers are seed planters and so often the impact they make is not seen.

“We are weathering a budgetary storm in public education; state funds have lessened each year and our local funding is very limited,” Whitehurst stated. “Therefore we are making heart-wrenching decisions we don’t want to make. We are cutting out some of the elements needed to produce a healthy crop (students). My prayer is those with the purse string power will make decisions or budget revisions for planting trees under whose shade we do not expect to sit. We have a good school system, with dedicated employees, and I want to see it improve to be the best in our state.”

Jo Chapman, Director of New Beginnings Day Care, said the facility provides the foundation of education.

“If you go back and look at all the children who have gone through our day care, I guarantee you that at least 50 percent, if not more, are now on their school’s Honor Roll or Principal’s List,” Chapman stressed. “I feel we have done a wonderful job in preparing these children. Please don’t close us.”

She presented eight letters of support from parents of day care students to the Commissioners.

Two day care “moms” – Wendy Harrell and Jody Williams – became emotional when talking about the facility, praising New Beginnings for going above and beyond what they are required to do.

“My daughter has learned much more there than I ever thought she would,” said Harrell, who then choked up when talking about the love and support offered by New Beginnings for her autistic son.

“That means so much to me,” Harrell said, fighting back the tears. “They’ve been wonderful. They’ve gone to special training classes to work with my son. There are more and more kids in our county being diagnosed with autism and they need a place to go and have someone to work with them.”

“Please don’t close this daycare center; without it parents may have to quit their jobs to stay home with their children or move out of the county to find somewhere with a day care as good as New Beginnings,” said Williams whose son has attended the one locally since 2012. “(New Beginnings) offers what all parents strive to find in a daycare….a safe environment, proper care and attention, socialization opportunities, cultural diverse atmosphere and the opportunity for your child to grow and develop. I trust these people with my child’s life and their staff is highly trained and skilled at their jobs. Having it here is a huge benefit for our county. Closing it would be detrimental to our community. Please find the funds to keep this wonderful facility open.”

John Long put a face before the Commissioners of one of the individuals affected by the RIF.

“I’m one of those to lose their position,” said Long, who said he has worked for the past 10 years as an elementary school art teacher, and has three children enrolled in Gates County Public Schools. “As a teacher I get to see how much the arts affect how much these children learn. With a shortage of funding, these children will suffer.”

Ed Booth said he didn’t have a solution to the problems facing the Commissioners as they worked to develop a new budget, but he did have some ideas.

“What would this situation look like had we not built a new library, that we really didn’t need; if we hadn’t purchased land that’s unusable for its intended use (as a sprayfield for a wastewater application process); if the increase of (county) staff members in certain areas where two-thirds fewer people just a few years ago did just as much work; and what would it look like if we weren’t outsourcing some of the functions (payment collections) of our local government,” Booth remarked.“ If you consider those things, what would the decision look like today when you’re talking about cutting education money? It would look a lot different.”

In approving the budget, which included across the board decreases in departmental funding as well as the loss of a secretarial position in the Cooperative Extension office, the Commissioners offered their individual thoughts.

“There’s not one of us sitting here that know that sometimes painful decisions have to be made,” said Commission Chairwoman Linda Hofler. “Our hearts go out to those affected, but we have responsibilities on our side of this table.”

Hofler said the county does have a fund balance, but the state’s Local Government Commission (LGC) keeps a watchful eye on that pot of money, adding that Gates County is not at the fund balance level the LGC recommends.

“Let me be clear that we did not cut the county’s schools in our new budget; they’re getting the same thing they got during this current fiscal year,” Hofler continued. “They decide how that money is used. We’ve learned that the day care is operating at a deficit and has been for most of the years they’ve been in operation. If you’re running in debt, I would suggest making sure you are operating at full capacity and looking at increasing your rates to make up for that deficit.”

Hofler also pointed out other unfunded mandates, to include $150,000 cuts to DSS Medicaid last year, this year and next year; and the county paying a larger share of the Cooperative Extension operating expenses.

“We agonize over these decisions,” Board Vice Chairman Jack Owens said. “And then you see the ladies and gentlemen coming today to the podium to speak. It adds to the heartache we feel. Those were real, genuine comments; this budget affects every area of county government, but when it affects a child, it is hard. We had to make this decision. We have a small purse and many requests for the money in that purse.”

“We only have so many dollars to operate on and some things did not get all the funding they needed,” said Commissioner Henry Jordan. “We could have raised taxes, but that doesn’t go well with those who pay those taxes. So we took what we had and done what we could do with that money without putting the county in jeopardy.”

“We just learned about the fate of the day care center,” noted Commissioner Billy Felton. “I just want to say that the county has no control over that center. It’s supported by those who use it. The condemnation we’re getting over that is unjustified.”

“We appreciate your comments and your concerns and we hear them,” said Commissioner Ray Freeman. “I feel our county manager and county staff has done an excellent job in presenting all these budget items to us as we deliberated.”

County Manager Natalie Rountree said the county has identified all revenue streams and used that funding to, “stretch our money as far as we could stretch it.”

The majority of that revenue stream comes from taxes: $5.38 million in local property tax; $538,000 in motor vehicle taxes; and $1.48 million in state tax.

Williams later said that the county School Board is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. on Monday, June 15 to further discuss the RIF.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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