By Catharin Shepard
Hoke County students and staff returned to class Monday for the start of a new school year, but some classrooms could be short on teacher assistants and some supplies.
Hoke schools saw a budget reduction of $586,000 in state funding set aside to pay for teacher assistants, school finance officer Wannaa Chavis said. Additionally, the county’s low wealth funding additional state money provided to counties that have less local money available went down by $237,470 this year.
It typically costs about $2 million each year to pay the salaries and benefits of all the teacher assistants in Hoke. Despite losing about a quarter of their funding for paying teacher assistants, the school system does not plan on laying off any of them, Chavis said.
“Our plans are to not cut any TAs. At the current point, we’re not rehiring. If anyone leaves, we’re not replacing them,” she said.
The school system currently employs about 75 teacher assistants. They are considered 75 percent time employees and their starting salary is about $16,000. Benefits bring the total up to about $24,000, officials said. The salary is higher for assistants with more experience.
The state requires schools to put assistants in all kindergarten classrooms. Hoke schools also tries to staff some first and second grade classrooms with teacher assistants where possible.
As openings come up in kindergarten classrooms, where assistants are required, the schools will move teacher assistants from first or second grade classrooms to fill those openings, Chavis said.
“We’ll look at other areas of funding to see if we can move any of that to cover those TAs,” she added.
The school system also staffs pre-k and EC classrooms with teacher assistants, but that funding is separate from the money that pays for assistants in other classrooms.
Low wealth down
This is the third time in three straight years that Hoke schools’ low wealth funding has been cut. In the fiscal year 2011-12, the schools received $5,766,093 in the additional state funding. This year, Hoke schools will receive a little over $4.1 million.
That means the schools have lost over $1.5 million in funding over the course of three years, Chavis said.
The idea behind the low wealth funding is that the state reduces the amount of money the low-wealth counties receive based on how well the county is doing financially.
“We lost that because Hoke County is growing. As Hoke County continues to grow, we lose funding in our low wealth,” she said.
That money would have been used to pay for supplies in classrooms, Chavis said.
The school system asked the county commission for additional funding this year to offset the decrease in low wealth funding. The county board approved a budget ordinance that kept the funding level the same. The county sets aside $542 per student enrolled in Hoke schools; the school system asked that the county increase that amount to $595 per student. That would have been an additional $500,000 in funding from the county, Chavis said.
In recent years, the county increased the per-pupil funding from $529 to $542 and passed a three-cent property tax increase to fund construction of Sandy Grove Middle School. This year, the county did not increase the per-pupil funding. Officials reported the county increased its school funding by $1.5 million to pay for debt service on school construction.
Superintendent Dr. Freddie Williamson said it is “challenging” to start a school year with over $800,000 less in funding from the state.
“Public schools are expected and required to provide transportation, meals, some level of medical service, counseling service, meet the social needs of students, testing, provide technology, materials, direct and indirect instruction, extra curricula opportunities, meet payroll and the list goes on,” he said. “It will be hard to find another organization or agency required to provide the expected services at the level we do.”
The school system works hard to provide those services without making any direct cuts to them, instead finding other ways to work around the funding reductions, Williamson said.
“We are committed to serving our students and parents at the highest level possible with no cuts to direct service areas,” he said.
It’s possible the school system may have to approach the commission later this year to again seek additional funding, the finance officer said.
“We may have to go and say, look, we’ve been cut in TAs and also low wealth. We may need additional funding, it’s a possibility,” Chavis said.
The schools did receive some good news this year, officials reported. The school system received a $2 million grant that will go to fund new electronic devices for student use in classrooms and also science, technology, math and engineering Saturday schools and mini-academies during the summer.