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Originally published: 2013-04-12 09:56:29
Last modified: 2013-04-12 09:56:28

School system whittles budget

The Watauga County Board of Education will meet Monday to further study and dissect the school system's draft budget.

Meanwhile, the finance committee met late into the night Wednesday to continue evaluating priorities and strategizing for how it would present its requests for local funding to the county.

With all requests included from the schools and departments, the 2013-14 budget would add $2.1 million -- or 17.9 percent -- to last year's budget, said Finance Director Ly Marze. The committee also received another $1.1 million in capital outlay requests.

"I'm thinking that we are not going to go to the county commissioners and ask for more than two million dollars on top of what we asked for last year," Marze said. " ... In the last couple of years we've tried to do a flat budget, so we need to find two million dollars to cut out, basically, if we want to do that."

The current finance committee includes mostly new members: Assistant Superintendent David Fonseca, human resources director Stephen Martin, school board members Lee Warren and Delora Hodges, and technology services director Chris Devera. Marze and maintenance director Dennis Ray also returned to the committee this year.

Watauga County staff is asking county departments to submit flat budgets, Ray said. But others argued that the changing face of education is creating expenses that were previously funded from other sources.

Fonseca, who is acting now as interim superintendent, noted that the state recently mandated a new curriculum, the Common Core and Essential Standards, which is requiring additional teacher training.

The schools also must administer new tests this year called "Measures of Student Learning," but the systems must pay to print the test questionnaires.

The school system's technology infrastructure has been neglected for some time, and years of tight budgets have created accumulated needs, he said.

"Textbooks, technology and staff development were big hits from the state," Martin added.

Some commissioners asked at the county's pre-budget retreat in February why the state wasn't picking up the tab for its requirements.

"All of the county commissioners are asking the same question, and it is a valid question," Fonseca said. "It is a wonderful question. But it's not going to help us do what we need to do."

The school system included in its budget a 1.6 percent salary increase for locally funded teachers, in case the state offers a raise for state-funded teachers that the schools must match, Marze said.

It also has set aside $100,000 to pay toward salaries for two JROTC leaders, who are slated to begin at Watauga High School next school year. Several schools and departments also requested additional positions, which the committee for the most part did not recommend.

Another relatively large increase is a $600,000 request for instructional materials, including textbooks and licenses for online resources. The school system will look only at materials for science, social studies, language arts and math, Fonseca said.

Supplies and other individual school needs total $161,155 for all schools, Marze said, an increase of $22,905 from the current year. The committee recommended keeping that line flat instead.

The board also mulled over a $93,050 budget line for staff development, which represents an increase of $38,400 from the current year. Ray commented that while the number sounds large, it represents only about $310 for training for each of the system's roughly 300 teachers.

Committee members discussed numerous other needs and priorities, cutting requests where they felt they were able to maintain current levels.

The school system also is considering drawing about $1 million this fiscal year from its fund balance for textbooks and technology needs. The money used for the buyout of Superintendent David Kafitz's contract also will come from this fund.

Part of that $1 million also might include the purchase of mobile devices such as iPads for principals to use to conduct walkthrough classroom evaluations.

If the board decides to tap into the fund balance for this school year, some of those budgeted items will be removed.

Watauga County Schools had about $4 million in its unrestricted fund balance at the end of last year, Marze said, and the system is required to keep about $2.8 million in fund balance.

The committee also considered which future expenses it may want to mention in communications this year with the county, including the eventual replacement of laptops provided to high school students.

"If you think the county commissioners are pulling their hair now, just wait until we continue the conversation about how expensive it's going to be to continue the one-to-one initiative in the high school, and that's coming in one year," Fonseca said.

With much more to be done, the entire Board of Education will meet for a work session Monday at 7 p.m. at the Margaret E. Gragg Education Center on Pioneer Trail in Boone.