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Commissioners, School Board on bumpy road toward funding

School Board chairman Ervin Bazzle and Mary Louise Corn at last month's School Board meeting. School Board chairman Ervin Bazzle and Mary Louise Corn at last month's School Board meeting.

After a heated dialogue at a meeting last week, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners and School Board could be edging closer to détente and an agreement for higher school funding next year.

 

Schools superintendent David Jones and School Board chairman Ervin Bazzle and other school board members attended a commissioners' meeting last week to make an overall request. The board is asking for an increase of $1.6 million, which would restore the funding to the 2010-11 level after last year's 7.5 percent cut reduced funding to $19,56 million.

Bazzle said in an interview that he was surprised when Commissioner Bill O'Connor peppered him and Jones with specific questions about operating costs and "rumors" about the consequences of last year's funding reduction.

O'Connor asked Bazzle to respond to "a rumor" that teachers were paying for supplies out of their own pocket. "I said that's not a rumor. You used to give a supplement of a couple hundred dollars a year" to cover supplies like copy paper and Kleenex, Bazzle said. Now, teachers buy those things themselves.

The commissioner asked about a "rumor" that the schools now made athletes pay for activity bus transportation.

"That's not a rumor either," the School Board chairman responded. "We had to start charging $25 per student per season."

O'Connor asked how many school bus drivers and lunchroom workers the school system had, making the point that when money is limited it ought to go into the classroom.

"Eventually, David said that's in the profile we gave you outlining our entire system last year," he said.

Reached on Sunday, O'Connor said, "I have no comment."

Bazzle said the School Board members felt blindsided by questioning they didn't expect.

"It was a long evening and I'm not sure we accomplished anything except showing the lines that separated one individual and the rest of us, I guess," he said, referring to O'Connor. "We were aware of the fact that he wanted to cut it by another 3½ percent this year but that never came up Monday."

Commissioner Michael Edney confronted the School Board members on the size of the request, and suggested the amount would require a 2-cent tax increase.

But there is a growing sentiment now among School Board members and some commissioners that the county's large reserve fund — $13.5 million — could cover for the requested schools increase.

"Their reserves are so large I don't believe they can justify raising taxes," Bazzle said. "They asked me about sales tax and about property tax.... You got a reserve sitting there.

Voters are not going to approve any more taxes, I don't care what you dedicate it to."

One more factor that would affect the county's finances is a quarter-cent local option sales tax. Both the School Board and the Blue Ridge Community College trustees have endorsed the measure, and commissioners are generally in favor of it. A vote to put it on the ballot would come later this year. The sales tax would raise a little more than $2 million a year but if it passed in November it would only generate money the last quarter of the 2012-13 budget year.

"A full year is very helpful but based on the election cycle under state law you can only do a quarter" in 2012-13, said County Manager Steve Wyatt.

As for the schools request, he said, "I met with each commissioner individually and we've had some discussion about how to make some dollars available," he said. "We're not there yet. I'll present a recommendation on Wednesday and I'll lay out some options for the commission. There are some options that are doable."

Negotiations over the past week — and after the primary election in which voters ousted O'Connor by a wide margin — appear to be more fruitful than talks back in March. Negotiations between superintendent Jones and Assistant County Manager David Whitson over a possible long-term funding formula for schools broke down. The minutes of an April 4 School Board quote Jones saying that Wyatt had called off the talks, saying a funding formula "would not work" and declaring that the school budget would be flat this coming year.

To a board member's question about a budget schedule, Jones responded that "Mr. Wyatt had indicated there was no need for the School Board to provide the County a budget because it was going to hold the system 'flat' for 2012-13."

The commissioners appropriate $21.15 million for schools two years ago and $19.56 million last year. In a 3-2 vote last year, with commissioners Charlie Messer and Larry Young voting no, the majority ordered the schools to cut spending by $1.6 million. It also required a pay raise for some teachers, further restricting how the school system could impose the cuts. The School Board used $2.6 million in reserves to fund the current year's budget.

The School Board was expected to formally ask for the $1.6 million increase at its regular meeting Monday night.

One School Board member said last week's commission meeting was a low point in schools' relations with the Board of Commissioners.

"At the end of that county commission meeting, myself and I feel like the other School Board members and school personnel were discouraged and disappointed with the direction that Mr. O'Connor was pushing the county commission," said Rick Wood. "I was hoping that last spring ended the cantankerous infighting over the School Board.

"I left disappointed, a little upset, but then the situation really improved when the following evening the election results came in. Now maybe we'll have a majority that will be more supportive of reasonable funding for our public school funding."