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One system, Macon County, has found some solutions others may learn from

Five percent. Ten percent. Fifteen percent.

As superintendent of Macon County schools, Dan Brigman balances numbers and percentages in his head all day. But these intervals of five are particularly bothersome.

In January, the North Carolina Department of Instruction, the branch of state government that most closely handles education funding, informed school superintendents across the state to prepare for education cuts beginning on July 1 in anticipation of the state’s massive budget shortfall. With competing proposals being released, how big and where those budget cuts will be is yet to be determined.

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Gov. Bev Perdue, in her budget proposal released Feb. 17, said no teacher or teacher aides jobs will be lost as she and her fellow legislators work to make up the $2.4 billion state shortfall. Perdue also promised to fund a new program, called Career and College Promise, with existing funds. That program would pay for qualifying high school students to go to community college and obtain a two-year degree.

Perdue’s plan garnered cheers from those throughout Western North Carolina who had protested teacher cuts. But some lawmakers in the region doubt the sustainability of Perdue’s plan to retain all those jobs. No one knows exactly how much money will be available until around July 1.

“When 55 percent of the budget is education, I just don’t see how you can not cut salaries,” said Republican Sen. Jim Davis, from Macon County. Davis called that sort of budgeting naive and said Perdue’s plan to shift fund management to county commissioners is an unnecessary burden.

Others, like Democrat Rep. Phillip Haire, from Jackson County, say Perdue’s budget merely protects education, which should be non-negotiable.

“Education is one of the reasons that North Carolina has businesses come here,” he said. “It’s an educated workforce.”

Brigman said Macon County’s schools have a strong and beneficial relationship with the county commissioners, but he doesn’t know if teacher jobs will be saved or if Perdue’s budget will be conceived as naive and Pollyannaish.

“I’m going to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Brigman said. “But even a 5 percent reduction in operating costs — even a 1 percent cut — takes Macon schools from adequate to inadequate pretty quickly.”

Brigman knows that the news for North Carolina schools won’t be good.

“This is the worst budget crisis I’ve ever seen,” said Brigman who has been superintendent for seven years, five of those in Macon County.

‘We’re always fighting geography’

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During Brigman’s tenure, Macon County has become a microcosm of everything that can go right and wrong in Western North Carolina’s education scene. His county embodies the extremes of his region.

Unlike some neighboring counties, Macon County’s student body is growing, introducing 60 to 100 new students into the district each year. Counties like Swain and Graham have four and three schools, respectively. Macon has 11, including five high schools and one alternative school, with 340 teachers.

In Graham County’s case, only 344 students in the county are enrolled at Robbinsville High School, far less than the state’s average enrollment of 792 students per high school. Macon County, by comparison, has an average of 539 high school students per school, with 944 enrolled at Franklin High School.

But Macon County is still small compared to Haywood or Buncombe counties. There are no charter schools dotting the county or a larger nearby city like Asheville, which draws lots of young professionals to the region.

“We’re always fighting geography,” Brigman said. If all the schools were in Franklin, the county seat, cutting certain programs, sharing resources and dividing personnel would be easier. But schools like Nantahala K-12, with only 117 students, need to offer the same level of academics as schools in Franklin, which has five times the number of students. And they need resources and teachers to do it.

Until now, Brigman has managed this balancing act; he’s even managed to grow his district with limited funds using a surgeon’s precision when it comes to budgeting.

He consolidated four elementary schools to two without losing personnel, and in his biggest project, will open two new middle schools to meet the demands of his growing district in the next two school years. He also plans to renovate four of 12 existing schools and begin construction of a new school for fifth and sixth graders to open capacity at elementary schools. The new school will open August 2012.

It may seem like Macon County is trying to finance a lot of projects, but Brigman said that these improvements are actually money saving in the long run.

“What we are seeing now is new facilities operating at 25 percent at costs of older, smaller schools,” Brigman said. “With geothermal heating and air, the schools are high efficiency in terms of utilities. There’s no operational burden, which equals savings.”

One solution: Planning and programming

A building’s efficiency is relatively easy to improve, and easier to measure. But an entire school district’s? That’s another story.

Brigman explained that this July marks the last of the system’s share of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) money, which, through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, allotted school districts with enough cash flow to prevent layoffs and cutbacks. North Carolina received about $1.16 billion from the fund for education.

“Since 2009, we have been trying to preserve every dollar in preparation of the removal of ARRA funds,” Brigman said.

But come July 1, their $2.4 million share will disappear.

Brigman knew the ARRA funds would only last two years, so he saved enough to float the district through one more school year. Then, some personnel may have to go, and with personnel goes a level of educational excellence that Brigman is afraid he may lose.

That impact is doubly felt in Western North Carolina, which has fewer magnet schools and lower college admission rates and high school graduation rates than the eastern part of the state.

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Brigman said Macon County benefits from several North Carolina programs that allow students to take college courses at Southwestern Community College. He also says that the growth and funding of alternative education programs have allowed Macon County to raise its graduation rates. According to Brigman, the dropout rate in Macon County was almost 6 percent in 2005; by 2010 it was 2.3 percent.

“We provided various avenues to get a diploma and expanded alternative learning in grades seven to 12,” Brigman said.

It’s those kinds of tactics that make Macon County one of the better-performing counties in the region. Of students who graduate in Macon County, 79 percent pursue post-secondary education, according to Nancy Cantrell, director of the county’s middle and secondary school curriculum. That’s higher than the national average.

But like anything else, performance is closely linked to reputation. Brigman worries that no matter if he faces a 5, 10, or 15 percent decrease in funds, he’s going to lose Macon County’s edge as a leader of education in the mountains.

“Once you take it away, it takes many years to restore,” Brigman said. “Education serves as a magnet for economic development. Without an educated workforce and a strong commitment we will see an impact that is long-lasting.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said state Sen. Jim Davis was from Transylvania County. His district includes Transylvania County, but he lives in Macon County.

Stephanie Soucheray

Stephanie Soucheray is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at stephanie.soucheray@gmail.com.

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2 Comments

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  1. I enjoyed that story. A couple of things may make financial matters easier for Macon County than most NC counties, especially her neighbors in the far west:

    1. As an exclusive retirement destination for the last 100 years for the south’s elite families, Macon County has incredible property values that offset any notion of “poor mountain county”.

    2. As the state switched sales tax redistribution to point of sale volume from per capita allotment, the second pillar of the Macon economy, tourism, means a healthier than most sales tax revenue stream.

    The video classes for Southwestern CC students are also a great idea that has benefited many local families and the proximity of WCU means a higher than most population of children whose parents have advanced degrees.

    One aspect of the story I was not clear on was the demographics that account for the consolidation of the elementary schools while opening new middle schools. A graphic or chart may help clear that up.

    Really liked the photo gallery.