Asheville – Leslie Anderson led off the annual update from Buncombe County’s Early Childhood Education & Development Committee. She hinted that the county commissioners should already be familiar with volumes of data supporting claims that children who attend high-quality early childhood education programs are more likely to graduate from high school, refrain from committing crimes, remain employed, stay off public assistance, be healthier, and be more productive than those who don’t. There are many good reasons parents don’t send their children to daycare, but Anderson only spoke about the cost. She said families can spend more for a year of daycare than they would for tuition at a state university. The trend is nationwide. That’s why in 2020, the commissioners agreed to budget $3.6 million toward early childhood education, with a 2% annual escalator.
Last year, the county awarded early childhood education funds to 13 organizations. Anderson said she was proud that not all recipients were going to use the funds directly on childcare; that is, for building and equipping classrooms, paying and training staff, or even expenses like technology and outdoor play areas. Grant funds were also going toward behavioral health support, assessments and licensing, a matched savings program, outreach and parent engagement, and a take-home library. All grants are performance-based, with quarterly reports published on buncombecounty.org/grants.
The county’s Wendy Wieber said how the county had fallen short of goals for the fund largely due to the pandemic. Attendance was down because children were not eligible to receive the vaccination; classroom sizes were down because of social distancing requirements; and the number of classrooms available decreased due to staffing shortages. Staffing was affected by infections, social isolation requirements, fear of infection, and repurposing of available employees. The commissioners viewed this as having turned out much better than it would have without county subsidies.
While enrollment fell far below goals, Wieber said 89% of the program’s goals for achievement were attained. In a by-the-numbers success summary, Wieber reported, “382 parents improved their education or income status; 164 family learning kits were provided for kindergarten readiness; 17 [people participated] in the bilingual early childhood cooperative network; 708 hours of behavioral therapy were provided; 10 workforce development participants successfully completed EDU119; and 89 early care and education professionals enrolled in the matched savings program.” One positive report stated that the grant funds allowed a care center to fix its toilet.
Kit Cramer, who is president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke more about declining enrollment and rising achievement. She said the county had been unable to evaluate achievement across the board until 2020, because the schools weren’t using unified assessment metrics. Now, they all use the North Carolina Early Learning Inventory (NC ELI). Administered within the first month of attending kindergarten, ELI assesses whether or not a student can: notice and discriminate rhyme; notice and discriminate alliteration; tell about another time or place; follow directions; count, quantify, connect numerals with quantities; attend and engage; use fingers and hands; manage feelings; follow limits and expectations; respond to emotional cues; interact with peers; and solve social problems.
According to the 2020 data, 69% of Buncombe County kindergarteners met a majority of the first seven objectives listed above, which represent academic achievement. Cramer didn’t differentiate between children who had attended early childhood education programs and those who didn’t, and it won’t be until next year that data for correlating the county’s investment efforts with outcomes will start accumulating. Available data does, however, show an achievement gap with 75% of white students proficient, compared to 56% of black students. Kindergarteners in charter, private, and home schools were not evaluated.
Commissioner Terri Wells asked if the chambers of commerce had added, or would consider adding, anything to their legislative agenda to help expand early childhood education. Cramer said she and others had given the matter some thought, and the only thing they foresaw getting traction was requesting salary supplements. “This is core economic development infrastructure,” she said. Those at the chamber were looking for other communities across the state interested in backing such a bill. She said early childhood education was in need of more sustainable revenue streams.
Another point of interest was that the Partnership for Children had been awarded $3.2 million, not from the early childhood education fund but from the federal COVID stimulus passed through the county. The funds would support a two-year pilot project for NC Pre-K expansion through improving access, increasing the number of licensed teachers, and “increasing stability and equity.”
Other Business before Commissioners
County Attorney Michael Frue told the commissioners Dominion Energy wanted to put a utility line about 50 feet under the Swannanoa River so it wouldn’t get damaged by a storm again. The power company was willing to pay $80,000 for an easement across a couple parcels owned by the county. The properties came into the county’s possession about 20 years ago via a FEMA buyout, and they may only support passive use. Candidate Commissioner Parker Sloan wanted to know if Dominion was merely replacing an old line or expanding its service area. Sloan continued, “My opinion would be to oppose any new gas lines or any fossil fuel infrastructure of any kind in the county, whether it’s on our property or not.”
On another subject, the county’s CFO and Finance Director, Don Warn, came before the commissioners with some “housekeeping.” In government, the term usually applies to “dotting i’s and crossing t’s” in the paperwork without substantially changing anything. Due to mergers, acquisitions, and other name changes, the county had to update its list of official bank depositories, which had not been updated for 22 years. Sloan inquired about the process and explained, “To let you know where I’m going with that, at a future date when we’re thinking about that, or we’re going through that process where we’re changing any of these, I’d be interested in the board giving feedback on selecting a bank that maybe aligns with our values, to the best of our ability, and still meets the needs of the county, and our deposits, and that sort of thing.”