Nantahala School in Macon County is one of two K-12 schools in the district. Only three such schools exist statewide. Courtesy of Macon County Schools.

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Macon County is home to two of the three North Carolina public schools that educate students from kindergarten to high school.

That distinction comes with a cost, however, with local taxpayers ponying up the extra money needed to run the schools that serve rural and geographically-isolated populations.

Macon County school officials are optimistic they’ll be in line for financial relief this year, if a legislative proposal to aid geographically isolated schools is adopted in the state’s final budget.

“We’re very hopeful that it will come through,” said Chris Baldwin, the superintendent of the Macon County public schools. “It’ll be a huge benefit for our school system.”

The two K-12 Macon County schools — Highlands and Nantahala — both pull their populations from mountain communities isolated by large swaths of national forestland and mountain passes that make reaching the areas difficult.

Class sizes fluctuate from year to year, and rarely are there enough children in each class to pull down adequate state funding to pay for a teacher in each class, said Republican state Sen. Jim Davis, a Franklin orthodontist that represents Macon County.

The state funds teachers based on a strict formula, and provides a teacher salary for every 16 to 28 students enrolled in a school district, the ratio varying from grade to grade.

That puts K-12 schools like the two in Macon County at a disadvantage, because the numbers of students frequently fluctuate but the school still needs to employ a teacher even if there are only a handful of students in the class.

“Sometimes, they will not have enough students to max out a class size,” Davis said.

This past year at Highlands, there were 24 kindergartners, Baldwin said. With too many students for a single class, the school district needed to have two separate classes but only received enough state funding to pay for one of the teacher salaries.

The county has to make up the difference in funding.

“In order for us to make this work, we need to fund a number of those positions out of local funds,” Baldwin said.

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Highlands School in Macon County is one of two K-12 schools in the district. Courtesy of Macon County Schools

The county spent $728,000 this year to fund 15 teaching positions in the two schools, he said

Educating each student at the Nantahala and Highlands schools ends up costing as much as $2,000 more each year than it does in the other Macon County schools. Davis said he thinks the state should pick up the cost.

Davis sponsored legislation in the Senate, SB 15, to allow for additional state funding for schools with populations that draw from areas with less than 1.5 students every square mile, or in counties with more than 150,000 of national forests. Three North Carolina schools fall under those definitions, the two in Macon County and the state’s other K-12 school on Ocracoke Island.

A companion bill in the House of Representatives, HB 23, was filed by Republican state Rep. Kevin Corbin, a Franklin insurance agent.

Davis has tried to secure funding for several years, and thinks the funding will come through during this year’s budget negotiations.

He has reason to be hopeful.

When the Republican-led Senate passed its $22.9 million budget last week, it included funding to help geographically-isolated schools. The Senate budget, which was $600 million less than Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s suggested spending plan, included $1.6 million over the next two years to pay for one teacher for every grade level in the three schools.

Davis was successful securing the funding in the Senate, but will have to wait to see if his Republican colleagues in the House want to allocate extra funding for the schools.

The House is expected to release its budget soon.

Ocracoke received help earlier

On the southern tip of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke has faced many of the same challenges as the mountain schools and is home to the state’s only other K-12 public school.

Ocracoke, however, had its teacher funding provided years ago when its local lawmaker, then-Senate leader Marc Basnight, was in power, Davis said.

Davis said the Macon County schools should receive the same benefits as the island community.

“They just wanted to be treated fairly,” Davis said about his Macon County constituents.

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While Ocracoke is surrounded by ocean, the Macon County schools are isolated by large swaths of national forest. Winding roads making it impossible for the school district to cut down costs and consolidate the schools with others in the school district, he said.

In other areas, rural school district can combine schools, or shift students from one school to another. That’s not an option in the mountainous area.

“The problem with these schools is that they’re so isolated that they can’t consolidate them,” Davis said.

Both schools serve communities reached by mountain passes can be treacherous in foul weather, Baldwin said.

“Both roads are steep, winding mountain roads that can be very treacherous, especially in January and February,” Baldwin said. “It would be a long bus ride and, more importantly, a very dangerous bus ride.”

Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a contributing state government reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at sarahovaskafew@gmail.com.

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