The school system’s budget has cleared another hurdle with preliminary approval from the Cumberland County Commission’s budget committee last week.

The budget also received unanimous approval from the Cumberland County Board of Education when it met May 27.

“We consider this a balanced budget in that we have had enough fund-balance expenditures to offset things we need to add into the budget,” Director of Schools Ina Maxwell told the committee.

The $59.8 million budget includes revenues of $56.4 million with $3.4 million coming from the school system’s fund balance. The fund balance can be used for capital expenses, like technology and buses, and one-time projects, like the Transition Academy under construction. That will leave a projected ending fund balance of $3.9 million.

The county’s share of the school budget is $18.7 million, the minimum local contribution set by the state. That is up $412,245 from last year, though the school system projects local revenue of $18.5 million for the 2020-’21 fiscal year.

The state Basic Education Program makes up the bulk of the school budget at $35.39 million.

The school system has benefited from legislation keeping state funding steady in the 2021-’22 school year, Chief Financial Officer Kacee Harris told the committee. The state sets funding based on student enrollment the year before. Cumberland County is down about 500 students from the 2019-’20 school year due to the pandemic.

That provided about $3.5 million in state funding the school system might have lost without the “hold harmless” legislation. 

“We got money in the coming year we didn’t really earn,” Harris said. “We thought it was prudent to put a little extra in our fund balance to see what happens next year when hold harmless goes away.”

Maxwell said the budget includes a 3% raise for all school system employees with additional funding provided for a “recruit and retain” salary schedule. The salary schedule adds to the salary schedule in the first five years for teachers, raising the starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree to $38,500 and to $41,045 for a new teacher with a master’s degree.

Veteran teachers with 20-25 years experience would see a .5% step increase those last years, with a top salary of $49,153 for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and $54,963 for a teacher with a master’s degree.

Schools will be down 9.5 teaching positions next year due to decreased enrollment. 

“This is calculated on state averages for each cluster and grade level,” Maxwell explained.

However, they are budgeting for an additional eight teachers in the event more students return to the public school system. This will allow the school system to hire teachers to meet state class size requirements.

The budget also includes additional positions for assistant principals, with a full-time assistant principal at every school with more than 200 students and a half-time principal at Pine View Elementary and The Phoenix School, which have fewer than 200 students.

“This is something that is very much needed to assist our principals, to help with our teachers, our families,” Maxwell said. “I think that will be very beneficial to support our schools.”

The additional assistant principal positions will cost about $141,000.

Joe Sherrill, 6th District commissioner, questioned why the school system was not budgeting more for internet connectivity, which was a challenge for many families during remote and virtual instruction this past school year.

Maxwell said the school system had hotspots to help with connectivity issues this past year, but that was not a solution for people living in areas with poor cellphone reception. Teachers worked directly with those families through phone calls, packets and other outreach.

There is some funding in federal budgets to provide hotspots for certain situations, such as homebound students. Maxwell said the county’s efforts to expand broadband access was critical to solving the connectivity issues in the future. However, she added, “There will be no remote learning next year in Cumberland County. We are in-person next year.”

The school system anticipates applying for additional federal COVID-19 relief funds, the third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER).

The maintenance budget includes about $945,000 for projects such as door replacements, parking lot paving, and school painting. It also includes $250,000 for a replacement of the electrical system at North Cumberland Elementary, which is obsolete.

Other projects totaling $890,000 were pulled out of the maintenance budget in anticipation of applying for ESSER funding, including a renovation of South Cumberland Elementary and new bleachers at Cumberland County High School.

They also plan to use federal funds to buy one regular and one special education bus, with four regular buses coming from the general fund budget.

“We are fairly confident we can secure federal funding for these projects,” Harris said. “Anything we can spend federal money on, we will take full advantage of those federal funds.”

Terry Lowe, 5th District commissioner, asked how many portables were still in use in the school system. Harris said they continue to remove portables each year. This year, they plan to remove two portables at South Cumberland, one at North and one or two at Homestead.

Maxwell said most schools use those for storage, though there are still a couple in use as classrooms.

“I’d really like to see those gone,” Lowe said.

Maxwell said the school system hopes to learn more about the ESSER 3.0 requirements in the coming weeks. 

“The ESSER funds will eventually dry up because they are non-recurring. And the grants operate on a reimbursement basis, so we don’t have the money up front,” she said. “We have to be so careful to make sure we don’t obligate the board, we don’t obligate the county, because the rules are being written as they’re pushing things out. Hopefully, we will be able to do some really good things, it’s just the process is much slower than I would like it to be.”

The panel approved the school system budget. The general fund school budget, school nutrition budget and federal programs budgets will go to the full commission when the panel completes the county’s budgets.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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