School Board Weighs Options as Budget Outlook Worsens
The Moore County Board of Education is considering its options as it prepares to hear new budget recommendations that will warn of even deeper funding cuts.
The school system is now anticipating more than $11 million in budget cuts from the state, according to preliminary information released about the N.C. General Assembly's version of the state budget.
Superintendent Susan Purser plans to present any revisions and new recommendations reflecting the changes to the Board of Education at 7 p.m. Monday at Union Pines High School.
She has also invited parents from Academy Heights Elementary School to attend an informational meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at West Pine Elementary School, where she will share her additional budget recommendations, specifically those that will affect whether or not the school will remain open.
Purser's current budget proposal recommends that the year-round elementary school be closed and that the county's year-round program be consolidated in Southern Pines.
She said she was holding the meeting to honor parents' requests to have an additional meeting and to maintain an open line of communication before the board's scheduled vote Monday.
"That was one area where they asked for some improvements, so I'm trying to respect and honor that," she said.
Purser plans to make the additional budget recommendations public Friday.
Since hearing from several Academy Heights parents at a public hearing on the issue March 21, Purser and her staff have been investigating the feasibility of other suggested alternatives and preparing to present their findings along with any new recommendations to the board.
Parents' main request was to keep the option of year-round school in the Pinehurst attendance area, either by keeping Academy Heights open or by relocating the program to the other two elementary schools in the district if the school has to be closed.
"All of these are options that we have to weigh off," Purser said. "We've got to do it in the context of not just the children of Academy Heights. I've got to look at this in the total context of all 12,500 students."
Purser added that she does not intend to take the option to close the Academy Heights facility off the table at this point because funding cuts are so much more severe at this point.
"I know that we can serve students outside of that facility, and the fact that it can save us hundreds of thousands of dollars in a budget that is severely impacted by the budget reduction," she said. "I've got to look at that as a cost savings."
As the board prepares for its vote, members are trying to keep an open mind about the options available.
Some have also expressed hopes that Purser and her staff will be able to find another option that is viable for the entire school system.
"[Parents have] given the board a lot to think about," board member Bruce Cunningham said. "We are in extraordinary times right now, and the budget challenges we face are something that we've never had experience with. So I hope a resolution can be reached that's satisfactory to everyone."
Board Chairwoman Laura Lang said she is optimistic that another alternative could work, but she is also very concerned about how the system will absorb the additional funding cuts.
"I think given all the information and the ideas that have come up, I really think that there's going to be a workable solution," she said. "Will everyone be happy? No, but nobody in the entire district is going to be happy when we're looking at $5.2 million in cuts. There's going to be a lot of changes occurring this year."
Lang's caution comes after she learned that the system may have to cut an additional $3.3 million from its budget, on top of the $8.2 million in cuts originally proposed by Purser in her recommendation to the board.
She and Purser attended a conference in Raleigh two weeks ago, where they learned that the N.C. General Assembly's budget would likely propose cuts between 8 and 12 percent.
Purser's proposed budget reflects a best-case scenario of 5 percent cuts that would reduce the budget by $8.2 million.
In the proposal, the system would see $5.2 million in real cuts, while the system would use $3 million from its general fund balance to cover the difference.
The recommendation to close Academy Heights would save the system $500,000 a year.
The budget also proposes that the system cut 90 positions and cut back school programs, such as middle school athletics and orchestra, and reduce "pullout" programs, such as AIG.
The system's local funding request of $27.5 million from the Moore County Board of Commissioners remains the same as last year.
Board member Kathy Farren said she is still trying to collect information and consider all of the options available before making a decision Monday.
"I feel that I need to stay open," she said. "I need to listen to everything, but again, I have to look at the Moore County system as a whole and what is going to be the best alternative for Moore County as a whole."
She added that at this point, the board is still in the process of learning if any of the other options could be a feasible alternative to Purser's current recommendation to retire the facility.
"Right now, [everything is] in a logistics study where [Purser] and her staff are looking to see if it's logistically possible, but nothing has been decided," Farren said.
Lang said that she and her fellow board members have to weigh their options and consider the potential impacts of additional cuts to the system along with Purser's current recommendations.
"It's a cost-benefit analysis," she said. "It shouldn't come down to numbers, but unfortunately, it does have to come to that because otherwise, we're not being fiscally responsible with taxpayers' money."
She added that though money is a significant factor in the decision process, it is not the only factor.
"It very well may well turn out that we're willing to pick up that additional cost [to keep the year-round program in Pinehurst], because choice is important," she said.
Contact Hannah Sharpe at email@example.com.
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