The Transylvania Times -

Guest Column: Investing In The Future Of Transylvania County


November 6, 2017

There is an ongoing discussion about investing for the future of Transylvania County, its infrastructure, and its people. A critical part of this conversation concerns school funding, and any discussion of local school finance can easily become muddled. It’s a complicated topic that involves many competing interests.

There are two primary categories of local support for schools: local current expense and capital funding. Local current expense is the amount provided for operating expenses, which is supplemented by state, federal, and grant funding. Capital funding largely stands alone, and is the primary responsibility of local government by statute. Both are essential and part of the total package of support from county government, but it helps to note some distinction between the two.

Before going further, it is important to note that Transylvania County Schools is historically among the better-funded school systems in North Carolina based on overall local support. That is an asset to our community, which provides the resources needed to make our schools and students competitive. Without the local support and community partnerships within the family of Transylvania County, our students could not achieve as consistently as they do today. This investment makes a difference, and it matters more each year in preparing graduates to succeed at the next level.

Transylvania County Schools serves approximately 3,500 students. Compared to peer county systems with similar enrollment, we fare rather well. We continue to look together with our county for improvements in child care, early childhood development, and services that support young children, as well as the recruitment and retention of young families. However, comparison with our peers also reveals some underlying strengths.

County school systems in North Carolina with 3,000 to 4,000 students are mostly rural like Transylvania County, as you might imagine. The list of peers includes Ashe, Greene, Martin, Anson, Cherokee, Jackson, and Montgomery county schools.

Using data and analysis available from the N.C. Department of Commerce and the N.C. Public School Forum, we find mixed indicators touching on economic development for households in general, and younger families in Transylvania County (see ‘Economic Comparison’).

From an educational standpoint, we perform very well among our peer group. And we believe the investment of local dollars has helped to make that difference, as the data also show (see ‘Educational Comparison’).

Unfortunately, the cost of maintaining our momentum outpaces the inflow of resources. Despite well-documented economic challenges for young families, our schools continue to produce leaders and successful graduates. While this success is due in part to consistent local support, dramatic changes in Transylvania County’s demographics, economy and infrastructure needs over the past 20 years have brought us to a point where additional investment is sorely needed.

If you have moved into our wonderful community recently, you’ve undoubtedly heard stories about jobs, wages, families, homes and other important elements in the history of a once-thriving manufacturing community. Those who are old enough, and have lived here long enough, to recall that past find it difficult to adequately describe the sweeping effects of that demise and the change it has created.

Our county has always valued education highly. I invite newcomers and seasoned residents alike to read (or re-read) the history of schooling in our county. It is a legacy that instills a pride, and challenges us to this day. The Biltmore School of Forestry, Brevard Institute (forerunner of Brevard College), and the early schooling established by trailblazers such as the Galloway brothers in the Gloucester area, are all part of our educational journey.

These are important parts of an educational foundation built here with care and pride by early families. The Rosenwald School, which today houses the administrative leadership of Transylvania County Schools, speaks to the heritage and excellence of early African-American education in our county as well.

We have long been pioneers in education, putting Transylvania County ahead of its peers and neighbors thanks to the vision of school leaders and the community that supported them.

Under legendary superintendent T.C. Henderson in the early years of the 20th century, Transylvania County completely transformed our school buildings while becoming the first school system in North Carolina west of Raleigh to go beyond the six-month school term of the long past. We were the first school system to fully integrate schools and sports teams in North Carolina, and the first to earn full-system accreditation.

We remain one of the top-performing school systems in our state. We have appreciated the elevation of Blue Ridge Community College in Transylvania County to full-campus status, and we enjoy vital partnerships with them and Brevard College to ensure that education remains an important driver for lifelong learning and economic success.

The shining example of education here tracked closely with the rise of industry here. In the middle of the last century, Ecusta and DuPont brought jobs, competitive wages, and stability for families to Transylvania County. Steady, good-paying jobs kept families here and encouraged young people to stay or locate here. The need for skilled professionals established a pipeline of technicians, engineers and their families into this community.

Equally important, industry generously enriched our schools far beyond the possibilities of government funding. Science equipment, facilities, athletic support, countless donations and band programs are but a few of the things industrial might bestowed on our schools. Expectations were set high, and only continued to rise. Our neighboring counties had to increase their efforts to keep up with Transylvania County. Then, the world changed.

Our smaller, more specialized industrial base continues to be a point of pride and central component of economic development. But the evolution to a tourism-based economy has also changed the dynamic between our community and our schools. Unfortunately, we were already in the throes of this transition when the economic crises of the last decade convulsed our state and our nation.

While the state economy has registered gains and is recovering overall, the lagging effect on rural North Carolina also shows in Transylvania County. We see this most clearly in changes to state and federal funding allocations, which have resulted in declining resources available from beyond our county lines. Increased costs to maintain the quality of our school have progressively been passed along to local government. As a result of our community’s long-standing regard for education, the people of Transylvania County have increased their support for our schools to meet those high expectations built over our entire history.

Despite losing a more powerful industrial base, shifting focus to lower-paying service jobs, increases in housing and the cost of living, and reductions in state and federal funding, Transylvania has stepped up for schools. We remain among the most highly-supported systems in North Carolina, based on overall local funding. Compared with other systems (excluding urban areas) that are growing, more affluent, or who receive special supplemental funding, we match up extremely well.

Despite our small size and rural setting, we do not receive “Small County” funding from North Carolina. While far more than half our children struggle with poverty and related issues including food insecurity, we do not receive state “Low Wealth” funding either. These state formulas favor counties with larger property taxes by viewing the real estate tax base as an economic measurement for supplemental funding.

A benefit to our county in other respects, our relatively wealthy tax base prevents us from receiving supplements which add up to millions for other counties. We face rising costs for unfunded mandates and ongoing increases in health care, retirement, and state salary matches. Yet, we continue to unite and work for the resources needed to offset deficiencies in operating expenses.

Without strong local support, our schools would be in serious trouble. Would we benefit from greater support? Yes. Do we lobby for additional resources? Absolutely. That’s because I know firsthand the great things we do with what we have received. We compete with the very best, and we do so successfully.

We all want to see our students excel, and to be well prepared. The potential for our students is limitless, thanks to our good stewardship of technology and the vision of great educators. Future articles here will provide more insight into where we are, and where we need to go, as we prepare our digital learners for a bright future after graduation. Digitally literate communities will continue to edge out their peers and neighbors as companies seek to invest. That stirring conversation still lies ahead of us.

Locally, we face challenges as we recruit and retain excellent educators for Transylvania County Schools. Our beautiful county brings with it high costs for housing and the cost of living, and many of our dedicated and highly-skilled teachers commute from neighboring counties in order to work here. They share our passion for doing everything possible to secure a winning future for young people in our county, and we all recognize this could be a much higher mountain to climb.

In challenging times, we pull together in partnership for the sake of our children. My sincere hope is that everyone shares my pride in the level of local support we enjoy. I am thankful for that commitment, which supports our ability to operate schools which truly serve our children by being excellent, not merely serviceable.

Yet, we cannot overlook the infrastructure needed to continue this great work. Our county as a whole is looking toward the benefits of spending on infrastructure, and for schools the need has reached a critical tipping point. Working with a leading architectural firm in our state, we have identified $93 million in pressing capital needs. These needs are real, they affect the everyday learning and well-being of every child, and lack of attention will only cause further erosion.

A bond, or combination of bonds, is one way to address infrastructure needs strategically and efficiently. Investing in a strong foundation to produce quality facilities and operational strength is not just a legacy of our schools—it is the way to position the citizens of Transylvania County for a stronger future.

Our county continues to help us remain competitive with local operational dollars that offset funding reductions and higher costs. They partner with us and our community to make this happen. But schools and local government cannot do that alone.

Now, we both need your help and support to tackle a crumbling infrastructure and provide everyday excellence for children. It will not be cheap. Quality never is. Kicking the can further down the road will only worsen the problem.

The time for us to act is now.

Dr. Jeff McDaris is Superintendent of Schools for Transylvania County Schools.


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