BOONE — Like many agencies in the state, Watauga County Schools had been waiting on the state to pass a budget before being able to make many financial decisions.
“We’re still in last year’s cycle because we’ve been waiting for further direction from the state because these budgets are connected,” Superintendent Scott Elliott said during the Jan. 13 school board meeting.
The Watauga County Board of Education approved a budget for its current fiscal year during the meeting. WCS Director of Finance Ly Marze said the school could no longer wait on the state’s decision and needed to move forward. She said the school system’s finance committee met on Dec. 12 to discuss the budget; Board Chairman Ron Henries said the committee “begrudgingly” reduced the budget to be able to move forward. Elliott said that each of the items that were reduced are all important items that the finance committee had hoped to fully fund.
“In a normal budget cycle, we would then make final decisions about those items once we have both the local ... budget from the county and the final budget from the state,” Elliott said. “We need both budgets in place in order to safely make decisions about what we can fund.”
The total revenue WCS budgeted to receive from the state was $29,549,946 — roughly 59 percent of its revenues, according to materials provided by the school system. Approximately 28 percent of its revenues —$14,187,674 — is county-funded allocation.
According to the Dec. 12 committee meeting notes, the decision was made to decrease expenses in areas such as substitute expenses for assessments (decreased from $37,000 to $27,000), diagnostic screeners requests (decreased from $102,000 to $48,000), classroom needs due to increased enrollment (decreased from $25,000 to $4,000), exceptional children’s program requests (decreased from $418,515 to $339,927) and visitor management system request (decreased from $12,500 to $10,000). Additionally, the schools decreased requests for art and band activities as well as cafeteria tables by $5,000 each.
In March 2019, the finance committee discussed the possibility of expanding the exceptional children’s day treatment program into the middle grades, and at that time proposed a 61.74 percent increase in funding. The program is still experiencing a 31.37 percent increase more than its previous year, but the request was decreased by roughly $76,000, which is directly related to the day treatment program, according to the meeting notes.
“Every member of that committee openly discussed what they could do, what they had to do and what they could do without for at least this year,” Henries said. “Everybody was very flexible in trying to put this together.”
The approved budget did increase the Pre-K program request from $55,000 to $75,000 for one teacher position at Mabel to begin this month. Additionally, it increased middle school coaching supplements by $12,000, according to the notes.
For capital projects, Elliott said the school system did decide to fund an additional activity bus — increasing the activity bus line item by $1,000 for a total of $96,000. WCS also approved $19,000 for the purchase of its own communication frequency and repeater system, and $30,000 for a fuel island — as Elliott said the school system needed to replace the pumps on the diesel and gas tanks at the bus garage.
In March, the WCS draft budget did not include funding for two nursing positions that were to be funded by the state. At that time, Elliott said that it was possible that the state could turn that into continuation funding.
In January, Elliott said that the school system was going to funding one of two new nurse positions added in 2018-19 with funding it receives from the county, while the other would be funded through state money. Elliott explained that the school system originally received a school safety grant for the 2018-19 fiscal year that it used to fund the new positions. But instead of a grant in 2019-20, the state decided to fund the non-instructional support positions based on school systems’ enrollment numbers, and that funding allocation was only enough for one nurse position for Watauga.
The 2019-20 budget does not include the $35,000,000 construction cost for a new Valle Crucis School, according to the WCS materials. Elliott said this expense is not reflected in the budget because the land will be purchased from the board of education’s undesignated fund balance. He added that construction costs will come from county funds.
“Once we get into the design process and have a clearer picture of the cost of construction we will begin to put those costs into the budget,” Elliott said.
Elliott reminded the board that WCS typically begins its budget process for the next fiscal year in January and is now composing a 2020-21 list for for a formal capital improvement request that it will give to the county commissioners by the end of the month. WCS will then meet with the commissioners during the county’s initial budget workshop in February.
The finance committee will then meet to formulate needs after Elliott has met with principals and directors, he said. The school system’s budget proposal is sent to the commissioners in April, and then in the coming months it will be approved by the county.
The school system would then wait for the state to pass its budget, and WCS typically would be able to officially have a budget for the fiscal year by August, Elliott said. Several members of the board and WCS administration made comments that they’ve never had to wait until January to approve a budget.