Schools Still Busting the Budget in Buncombe - TribPapers

Schools Still Busting the Budget in Buncombe

Solid waste collection rates are increasing in Buncombe County. Screenshot.

Asheville – Buffy Fowler, operations coordinator for Francine Delany New School for Children, asked the Buncombe County Commissioners to reconsider defunding school nurses at charter schools. The county had sent out an RFP for school nurses, and MAHEC, with whom the county had worked in the past, was the successful bidder.

Later, trying to balance the budget without raising taxes too much, the county asked all department heads to reduce their spending. This led to MAHEC settling for a 6% increase in its contract instead of the requested 11%. This was achieved, in part, by defunding the school nurse positions at Francine Delany, Evergreen Community Charter School, Asheville PEAK Academy, and ArtSpace Charter School.

School nurses routinely administer oral medications and injections to children; develop healthcare plans for children with chronic conditions and regularly monitor their conditions; administer first aid; and prepare and/or collect data for government reports. Fowler said charter school nurses are currently training teachers to do their jobs before their contracts run out. In schools without nurses, NCGS 115C-375.1 allows other school personnel to perform their duties after appropriate training.

Fowler said it would cost $50,000–$60,000 per school to fund a part-time nurse. News of the cuts hit just after Francine Delany completed a fundraising campaign for other purposes. Now, Fowler said, there isn’t enough time to apply for grants before the next school year.

Last year, over 40 legislators tried to pass legislation (HB336 = S263) to require state-funded, full-time nurses in all public schools. At the time, a $100 million recurring appropriation was requested.

Eric Ager (D-Buncombe) was among the cosponsors. He told the Tribune, “I am certainly a supporter of increasing the number of nurses in our schools and am a proponent of funding it at the state level. Despite bipartisan support, I don’t have much hope that these bills will move during the short session. They have been stalled out since last March, and it looks as if the Republican majority does not intend to make either one a priority.”

The county has, however, increased school spending for the upcoming school year. Highlights include spending $3.9 million on early childhood education programs and $4.1 million for solar installations on schools and other public buildings. At $126.2 million, education spending will represent 28% of the county’s general fund.

County Manager Avril Pinder explained that education spending has outpaced general budget growth so much that the formula established by former interim county manager George Wood to restrain school spending is no longer helpful. Between FY2019 and FY2024, the county’s school spending increased from $77 million to $113 million. Pinder therefore recommended adding $3.99 million to this year’s education budget.

As with the City of Asheville, this budget was prepared in the context of inflation, drying up federal stimulus streams, and stagnating sales tax revenues. The county continues to receive opioid settlement funds, of which it expects to spend $3.3 million in FY2025.

Unlike the city, the county will be raising taxes this year. The 52.35-cent per $100 valuation rate includes an increase of 1.8 cents for general operations and another increase of 0.75 cents to cover increasing K–12 expenses. The county’s $441.9 million FY 2025 general fund budget will be balanced with a $11.8 million appropriation from fund balance.

Budget highlights include $2.6 million to be paid in economic development incentives, $2.3 million to support affordable housing initiatives, $750,000 to help purchase conservation easements, $426,000 for electric vehicle charging stations, and $250,000 for reparations. The county has created 33 new positions, down from the 133 requested by department heads, and all employees will be receiving a 4.89% cost of living adjustment.

Following the budget discussion, the commissioners approved replacing Waste Pro as the county’s solid waste hauler. A new, six-year contract was awarded to FCC. Formerly known as Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas, headquartered in Madrid, Spain, FCC now operates in 35 countries. Basic subscriber service fees will now be $28.65 per month, or $12.75 more on the quarterly bill.

In Other Matters

Nancy Waldrop, chair of the Buncombe County Planning Board, updated the commissioners on their progress in developing recommendations for short-term rental regulations. They had been soliciting community input but were unable to arrive at consensus because groups like Emma Poder, Realtors, and MountainTrue had conflicting interests, and there wasn’t enough time to address all potential conflicts. Waldrop said STRs do need regulation, but there was only agreement that they should not be allowed in mobile home parks and the Blue Ridge Parkway and Steep Slopes overlays. At Chair Brownie Newman’s recommendation, the planning board will be given more time to develop recommendations.