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Macon schools may return to pre-pandemic level staffing as COVID funding expires

The COVID-19 pandemic brought an unprecedented wave of federal funding to K-12 education through the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) program. North Carolina Schools received $3.6 billion in ESSER funds. This massive financial boost allowed school districts to launch initiatives and programs that were previously out of reach.

As the ESSER funding comes to an end in September 2024, education leaders now face difficult choices. They must evaluate which programs have been successful and decide which ones to continue funding in the 2024-2025 school year. The end of this funding era marks a critical juncture for the future of educational programs nationwide.

North Carolina released a toolkit to help school systems navigate the ESSER Funding Cliff which included details such as potential options for funding the initiatives. Those initiatives listed included:

(1) apply for specific grant funding, 

(2) ask for an increase in local-level funding from county commissioners, 

(3) utilize innovative approaches to braiding federal funds, or 

(4) use a budgeting process to identify funding from within the current budget.

The Macon County Board of Education recently submitted its budget request for fiscal year 2025, outlining ambitious plans to continue the pandemic-level enhancement of the county’s educational landscape by replacing federal dollars with local county dollars. However, the proposed funding by County Manager Derek Roland has sparked discussions regarding the scope and feasibility of these enhancements.
County Manager Derek Roland’s FY 25’ Recommended Budget proposes an increase of $335,405 in operational funding for the Macon County School System, bringing the total annual contribution to $10,031,774. However, the proposed budget falls significantly short of the Board of Education’s request for a $2,546,433 increase. Over the past two fiscal years, Macon County Schools have been granted an increase of $1,216,043, or 13.7%, in operational funding. These funds have been critical in maintaining locally funded teaching positions and providing state-mandated salary increases for teachers and staff.
The school system’s request included funding for 26 new locally funded positions, originally created during the COVID-19 pandemic and funded through the ESSER. With ESSER funding ending, the school system hoped to integrate these positions into the local operating budget.
The requested positions include:
  • 19 Teaching Positions: Annual cost of $1,735,811.
  • 7 Mental Health Professionals: Annual cost of $489,040.
  • Athletic Supplements: 10% increase, totaling $31,720.
  • 3% Raise for Classified Employees: Costing $289,863.

Specifically, with its ESSER funding, Macon County Schools was able to add five full-time art teachers and four full-time music teachers to its ranks. It was also able to add one STEAM teacher, all positions that did not exist prior to the Pandemic.

Adding all the requested positions would represent a 63% increase in the number of locally funded teaching positions, marking a substantial new commitment from local funding. Roland’s recommended budget does not include funding for the newly requested positions. County Manager Roland highlighted that such an increase would signal a “new level” of commitment to locally funded operations that has not yet been agreed upon by the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education.
How are the arts funded in schools?

In North Carolina public schools, art teachers are primarily funded through a combination of state, local, and sometimes federal funding sources. Here’s a breakdown of how the funding typically works:

The primary source of funding for art teachers in North Carolina comes from the state. The state budget allocates funds to school districts based on student enrollment and specific needs. This includes salaries for teachers, including those in the arts. The North Carolina General Assembly appropriates funds to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) annually. This budget covers a wide range of educational needs, including salaries for teachers, resources, and programs.

The state provides funding for teacher positions based on student-to-teacher ratios. Positions for core subjects like math, science, English, and social studies are typically prioritized in the initial allotments. Art teachers, along with teachers for music, physical education, and other specialty areas, are included in the overall allotment but might have different ratios or funding sources. While the state provides guidelines and ratios, local school districts have some flexibility in how they use their allotted positions. They might choose to hire additional art teachers based on local priorities and available funds.

Congress funded the federal Assistance for Arts Education program at $31 million in fiscal year 2021, according to Americans for the Arts. The program, authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act, funds professional development for arts educators, development of learning materials, community outreach, and national outreach that expands access to art programs.
Nonprofit arts organizations hold major influence in funding and supporting school and local arts programs. One of the biggest examples of this is the National Endowment for the Arts, which has awarded more than $5.5 billion in funding to bring arts to communities across the country through a variety of grants.
The Board of Education’s request for a $2.5 million increase in operational funding comes at the same time the school system and county commissioners are in the process of undergoing a historic investment in the district’s infrastructure.
The FY 25’ Capital Improvement Plan outlines approximately $147 million in capital improvements, including:
  • New Franklin High School: $137,000,000
  • Highlands Middle School Renovation and Pre-K: $9,000,000
  • Nantahala Wastewater Treatment Plant: $650,000
These projects represent the “pinnacle” of education-related capital spending in Macon County. The financing calendar indicates that $70,100,000 in limited obligation bonds will be secured by September 26, 2024, to fund these projects. The exact costs will be updated once the Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP) is delivered by the construction managers.
Roland presented his budget, making it public on May 21, at which point the school system learned their request for additional funding would not be included. During this week’s joint budget work session between the two boards, with a large audience of concerned citizens, County Manager Derek Roland asked board of education leaders if there were any items aside from capital outlay priorities the board wanted to discuss, and despite the proposal not including the $2.5 million increase, school leaders didn’t address Roland’s decision or express any questions or concerns. Commissioner Josh Young again brought up the number of citizens in attendance and shared his desire to ensure the budget work session answered their questions and concerns and attempted to open the floor for conversations outside of capital outlay requests, however, no one took him up on the offer for further dialogue.
Commissioners will meet again for a budget work session prior to their regularly scheduled meeting slated for June 11, at which point public comment on the budget will be solicited and commissioners will have the first opportunity for an official vote on the budget.

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