The Transylvania Times -

McDaris Responds To Data From The County

 

December 11, 2017



Transylvania County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff McDaris said in an interview last week that he appreciates the support the school system receives from the county commissioners, but that the statistics presented at a recent county commission meeting do not provide anywhere near a full picture of how the local school system compares with other counties.

“I don’t question how well they fund us,” said McDaris. “There’s a lot more data than just that. You really have to dig down into them.”

According to the report presented to the county commissioners by County Manager Jaime Laughter based on research done primarily by county employee Jonathan Griffin, the county funding for the school system’s operational, or daily expenses, is the fifth highest per student in the state.

Other facts presented were that overall state funding has increased 1.2 percent per year while student population has decreased 0.6 percent a year; that Transylvania County has a low number of students per school; and that Transylvania County has reported capital needs that are higher than other peer counties or those included in the study.

Griffin also said that if school operations were run more efficiently, the county could save $1,000 per student or $3.4 million per year. That amount would be the equivalent of 7 cents on the property tax rate, which he said could be used toward capital projects.

“There is no way to find $3.4 million in efficiencies without dramatically impacting the classroom,” said McDaris. “Any cuts are going to affect the classroom.”

McDaris said most state and federal funds are allocated for specific purposes. If positions funded by state and federal allocations were cut, then the funding for those positions would be cut as well.

As a result, most of the cuts would have to be positions and programs that are locally funded.

He said that much of the local funding is used to provide programs and positions that greatly enhance the education of local students, and gave several examples.

McDaris said Transylvania County Schools pays a higher teacher supplement than many counties to attract quality teachers. He said some school systems, such as Cherokee County, do not pay a teacher supplement.

He said Transylvania County pays teacher supplements comparable to Henderson and Buncombe counties, counties with whom Transylvania competes for teachers.

McDaris said many counties do not have a School Resource Officer (SRO) in every school, and many school systems do not provide the same level of arts and music instruction that Transylvania County does.

“We have robust music and arts programs in the middle and high schools,” said McDaris.

Junior ROTC is a “fantastic” program, according to McDaris, but that program is funded locally.

“I hope there would not be a desire to want to cut that,” he said.

He also said the school system is committed to technology and is one of the few school systems in the state with one computer or similar device for each student.

McDaris reiterated that he and the school system are appreciative of the funding they received from the county commissioners.

In the counties assessed by the county manager and her staff, Transylvania ranks at the top by providing $3,888 per student.

But that amount, according to McDaris, does not keep pace with increases mandated by the state for health and retirement benefits, nor does it reflect the fact that other school systems of a similar size receive more funding per pupil from the state.

According to the information provided by the county, of the 18 counties with which Transylvania was compared, only six counties received less per pupil funding from the state than Transylvania County, and all of them had higher enrollment.

With the exception of Dare County, which has 4,976 students compared to Transylvania County’s 3,402 student, all of them represented counties with much larger student populations – Wake (157,763), Haywood (7,156), Buncombe (27,730), Mecklenburg (145,930) and Henderson (13,467).

When asked why counties of similar student populations such as Anson County, which receives $7,474 per student, Greene ($7,460 per student), Cherokee ($6,190 per student) and Ashe ($7,053 per student) receive more per pupil funding from the state than Transylvania ($5,905 per pupil), McDaris said the other school systems are probably classified as either small school or low wealth counties or both. Transylvania County is not classified as either small school or low wealth. He said low wealth funding is based on a convoluted formula that includes tax rates, the value of real estate, etc.

“We are considered a wealthy county,” said McDaris.

McDaris said the county is considered a wealthy county because of high property values throughout the county, but “we know that many families are struggling.”

He said that due to the high wealth rating of the county, the state believes Transylvania County should be able to pay more for its students’ education.

That is why the county ranks low in the state when the state compares the county’s ability to pay to what the county actually contributes. As for small school funding, McDaris said that funding goes to counties that have less than 3,200 students. Transylvania has more than 3,400 students.

McDaris does not want the county to fall into the small school classification because that would indicate a loss of families with school age children.

“I would like to go in the other direction,” said McDaris.

McDaris also said there is an effort by some school superintendents to keep the low wealth and small school funding just as it is.

“It is an exclusive club to be part of those two groups,” said McDaris. “They do not want any more members because the money gets divided up more.”

He also said the statistic regarding the county receiving more funds while seeing a decrease in enrollment is somewhat misleading because funding for charter school students and vouchers for private school students “pass through” the school system.

He said that while the state and county send money to Transylvania County Schools, some of that money is “passed through” to Brevard Academy: A Challenge Foundation Academy, Summer Charter School in Cashiers, Mountain Sun Community School and even Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County, which claims that one student residing here attends school there daily. Since the money “passes through” the school system, it looks as if the school system is receiving more money that it actually receives to spend.

He also said there is a discrepancy in the way in which funds follow a student. If a student attends a charter school, such as Brevard Academy, for a month and then enters the Transylvania County Schools system, that money does not follow the student; it remains at the charter school.

He said if charter schools were treated as individual school districts, then it would be clearer how much money each system is receiving per student.

As for the statistic that Transylvania County Schools has higher per school capital needs ($200,000 per year) than other counties, McDaris said that is partly due to no new recent school construction and the county’s smaller school sizes.

According to information provided by the county, Buncombe County’s per school average was $261,000 per school and Henderson County’s was $69,000 per school. However, another chart provided by the county shows that Henderson County had new schools built in 2013 and Buncombe County had new schools built in 2016.

The last new school built in Transylvania County was in 1991. McDaris said as schools age they require more capital improvements. Thus, the $200,000 per school capital expenditure is due to the fact that many of the schools in the county are old.

He also said that due to the topography and soil in this county, it is more expensive to undertake capital projects here than it is in other parts of the state.

McDaris also said that having a low number of students per school is not bad.

He said that many charter schools originally were formed because parents wanted their children to attend smaller and more innovative schools. He said the smallest school in the county, T.C. Henderson School of Science and Technology is one of highest-scoring and best schools in the county.

“It’s our highest performing school, which says something about small class sizes,” said McDaris. “It’s a wonderful school.”

He said T.C. Henderson also receives great support from the retirement community, noting that Burlingame gives the school about $25,000 a year.

McDaris said he believes a desire to consolidate some of the schools is behind some of the statistics that were included, as well as the statement that the county schools could save $3.4 million more per year.

“I do believe that is part of it,” said McDaris.

But he said the school system has run the numbers on consolidation of T.C. Henderson with Rosman Elementary, or the elimination of Davidson River School and other offerings and none reach $3.4 million.

He said if the T.C. Henderson closed and those students went to Rosman Elementary, it would cost more than $2 million to construct the facilities needed to accommodate those additional students at Rosman Elementary.

“So, there’s not a savings there,” he said.

He also added that from a building operations standpoint, T.C. Henderson is one of the cheapest schools in the building to operate and that staff costs would remain similar because the teachers from T.C. Henderson would most likely move with their students.

McDaris said the school system also looked at how much it could save if Davidson River School were closed, teacher and extracurricular staff supplements were eliminated and various programs, such as JROTC were dropped.

“If we cut all those things out, that’s $2.9 million,” McDaris said. “We’re not going to do that.”

McDaris reiterated that many of the teaching and the principal positions are paid by the state, so if the number of those positions were reduced due to consolidation, commensurate funding from the state also would be reduced.

“I don’t have that ($3.4 million) that I can cut,” said McDaris. “I can only guess that this is about consolidating more than one school. That’s my speculation.”

McDaris expressed appreciation that the county manager added counties he suggested in the comparison, but added that he uses different metrics to determine comparisons. Generally, he likes to compare the Transylvania County school system with other countywide systems that have between 3,000 and 4,000 students.

But McDaris said they also look at specific counties for specific comparisons.

For example, they look at the Carrboro/Chapel Hill system when comparing AP (Advanced Placement) scores but will look at other systems when comparing CTE scores because Carrboro/Chapel Hill does not have a similar percentage of students in CTE programs.

They also look at neighboring counties, even though they may have more students, because the demographics are similar and they compete with those counties for students and teachers.

McDaris said some peer comparisons ignore economic and demographic factors.

He said Scotland County may have a similar population, but its median age is much younger and they have a higher percentage of young families. Scotland County schools also fare worse academically and ithas a much higher tax rate.

“Do you really want to be like Scotland County?” he asked.

McDaris said people should look at a wide variety of statistics and dig a little deeper as to what those statistics actually mean before addressing what is next for the school system in an effort to make the school system better.

“I’m not questioning that we’re well funded. I appreciate the funding, every dime of it,” he said. “I’m very thankful for the support we receive. I think we have a good school system as the result of it.

“The question is: Now what?”

 
 

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