The Buncombe County commissioners rode the education circuit on Feb. 26, holding joint meetings with the county and Asheville city school boards. Like dutiful students, the five commissioners took notes and asked questions.
But the lessons school-board members offered them included as many challenges as answers -- particularly when it comes to maintaining school funding while absorbing a portion of the state's $1 billion budget shortfall. Buncombe County, which stands to lose more than $2 million this fiscal year, cut local school spending last month by 3.5 percent.
"Please carefully consider our [upcoming] budget request," Buncombe County Board of Education member Richard Greene urged commissioners. Specifically, Greene was talking about the pressing need to update the school system's computers, software and Internet access. "Six years ago, we were still trying to figure out what 'dot-com' was. ... Teachers could not rely on having access to a computer that worked [or] fast and reliable access to the Internet, [and computer] use by students was almost nonexistent," said Greene.
But in today's classrooms, he continued, computers and high-speed Internet access are necessities -- and providing them will require major resources. Teachers, he pointed out, need computers for both administrative and curriculum work, and students need them as part of their preparation for becoming workers in the modern world. "Our board is committed to providing the best opportunities that we can for our students," said Greene.
And fellow county school-board member Dianne Shepherd noted the complex interaction of educational and other governmental issues, arguing that, money aside, the commissioners can also help the county school board by "considering the adequacy of school facilities when considering new residential development." The school board anticipates continued growth in the south Asheville area, for example, and commissioners need to be aware of the possible impacts of such growth on schools that may already be at capacity, she explained. To keep system costs down (and avoid having to build new schools), "We need to be part of the planning as early in the process as possible," suggested Shepherd.
Buncombe County Board of Education Chairman Wendell Begley pointed out that, less than 20 years ago, Buncombe's schools were numbered among the 12 worst school systems in the U.S. because of the sorry condition of the county's educational facilities. By the time major construction, expansion and improvement projects are completed next fiscal year, Buncombe will have spent $225 million in turning that situation around, said Begley. The Buncombe County Schools serve about 25,000 children, he added.
Some of those children have earned Buncombe's middle schools top finishes in a recent statewide math contest, school-board member Jim Edmonds mentioned.
Some students need help just staying in school, commented board member Dusty Pless. He suggested added support for mentoring and other programs that might keep kids from dropping out or falling by the wayside academically.
Commissioner David Young asked how Buncombe County students' SAT scores compare to those of students in other school systems in the Southeast.
Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Cliff Dodson replied that he knew of no figures for the Southeast, specifically, but that Buncombe students scored, on average, 42 points higher than the national SAT average. Doing well on that test and earning their diplomas gives local students choices when they graduate -- university, community college, the military, employment -- he commented.
Commissioner Patsy Keever applauded the county school board's commitment to doing a better job of recruiting and retaining quality teachers for the system. "We baby boomers," said the veteran teacher, "are getting ready to boom elsewhere." The growing number of retiring teachers alone increases the pressure to step up recruitment efforts, she implied.
And Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Bill Stanley, responding to dropout statistics cited by Pless, said intervention to save kids "has got to start early. Many kids, by 10 or 11 years old, have already decided they don't like school."
Pless replied that most dropouts occur in the ninth and 10th grades -- soon after the difficult transition from middle to high school. One thing the county is trying to do, he explained, is reduce class sizes. When a class has 28 students, "It's hard to give attention to high-maintenance kids," said Pless.
Commissioner David Gantt asked what school officials are doing to reach out to the families of at-risk students.
There's no systemwide program, said Dodson. But Emma Elementary -- in part because of the large number of students enrolled there for whom English is a second language -- has an after-school program that involves parents.
With few other comments, commissioners took a quick dinner with county school-board members, then piled into a van and headed to the Asheville City Schools Board of Education headquarters in the historic Lucy Herring School near downtown.
Asheville City Schools Superintendent Robert Logan went straight to the money issue: Most N.C. public schools receive about 60 percent of their funding from the state, he pointed out. There is some federal funding, such as President Bush's Leave No Children Behind initiative, he noted, adding, "Always, with the federal money comes ..."
"Strings!" nearly all commissioners and city school-board members replied in unison.
To survive the immediate effects of state-budget shortfalls, the Asheville City Schools have implemented a hiring freeze, cut travel expenses, trimmed materials purchases and more, explained Assistant Superintendent Tim Amos. But there are some things school officials don't want to cut -- and can't afford to, in the long run -- such as teachers' supplemental pay, technology upgrades and renovating Claxton Elementary, he emphasized. At the same time, school officials don't want to skimp on safety issues, such as making sure there's a telephone in each and every classroom, noted city school-board member Roy Harris.
"As a parent [of a child in the city schools], it didn't take long for the budget crisis to hit my pocket," Harris related. His daughter recently asked him to buy oboe reeds, because the school had temporarily suspended its policy of supplying them.
Meanwhile, the system's 13.5 percent turnover means that 60 to 80 teachers must be hired each year (and that's not counting teachers who retire), reported city school-board member Lewis Isaac. And the 8.5 percent supplement Asheville adds to its teachers' base pay is not competitive with other North Carolina metro areas that offer supplements upward of 18 percent, he continued. But there are federal and state programs that provide sign-up bonuses for minority teachers and male elementary teachers, and one state program offers low-interest mortgages to first-time home buyers who are educators, Isaac added.
City school-board members also echoed many of the concerns mentioned by their county counterparts -- reducing the dropout rate, getting parents more involved in their children's education, advocating for mentor programs, and giving teachers more time to teach by streamlining (and computerizing) their paperwork and administrative duties.
There's also the persistent achievement gap between black and white students, city school-board Chair John Legerton emphasized. Although the gap has narrowed significantly at the elementary level, the situation at the high-school level has not improved, he reported.
Which programs are doing a good job of addressing the above-mentioned challenges, asked Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey.
The Accelerated Learning Center on Haywood Road -- where about 60 students get personal attention from more than a half-dozen teachers -- is doing well, Logan replied. Other programs will be under close scrutiny in the coming year or so as school officials evaluate their effectiveness with an eye toward cutting costs, he added.
As the discussion closed, Bill Stanley, a retired educator, offered a little perspective: "Once [upon a time], I was the highest-paid principal west of Charlotte. I was paid the grand sum of $28,000 a year."