01/09/11 — Schools prepared for budget stresses

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Schools prepared for budget stresses

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 9, 2011 1:50 AM

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Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor says he expects the Wayne school budget to be a challenge this year, mostly because of state funding.

Despite a snarled state budget and slowdowns to construction during 2010, Wayne County Public Schools continues to keep pace in providing a quality education, superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor said.

"As far as testing, the ABCs and No Child Left Behind, I thought we did very well compared with districts across the state," he said. "The year was not as good as the previous year, but as far as AYP (adequate yearly progress) results, we were among the top. We were fourth among the 20 largest districts. In 2008-2009, we were first among the 20th largest districts."

Taylor said he feels good about the system's status -- even though he says the state benchmarks are a moving target.

"Our teachers and staff have done a great job, to try and reach and attain those goals," he said.

Another emphasis the district strives to improve upon are its graduation and dropout rates. Doing so requires continuous efforts to look at programs to accomplish that, Taylor said.

At one end of the spectrum is Wee Wings, a mobile preschool program introduced three years ago, with a second bus later funded by the county commission.

High school reform and various academies have also been employed to keep students interested, involved and on task to graduate on time, Taylor said.

"Our goal, really, is three-fold -- to enter the workforce, go to college or into the military," he said. "I think (the district) has done a good job of that and helped to prepare students for that."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in the district's path each year is the state's budget.

"The challenge is the same, we have had a real challenge with the budget for the last three years," Taylor said. "This coming year is going to be, in my opinion, the most challenging. The state has a $3.5 billion shortfall as we have been told.

"We have also been told that all state agencies will take a share of the hit and education is a big part of that. We have already cut out $4 million of our budget over the last two years."

Lacking specific dollar amounts, it is especially hard to lay out a budget plan for the upcoming year, the superintendent said.

"We have heard an additional 5 percent, 10 percent, 15 percent (in cuts), but we will not know until we get the official word," he said. "That could all change."

Ideally, the General Assembly will complete a budget by June 30, but even that is not guaranteed.

"There are lots of rumors and scenarios about what's going to be hit, what's going to be cut. We have no way of knowing," he said.

School officials have worked to maintain programs and protect jobs, Taylor said. Hopefully, their luck will not run out, he added.

"Typically, the way this thing works, the Department of Public Instruction will make recommendations as to what cuts they could recommend and then the General Assembly may take that and run with it or they may not use it at all," he said. "They could also give us discretionary cuts, (an amount) and put the burden on our backs where to make them."

Recent years have been particularly tough, Taylor said, as cutbacks have become an annual occurrence.

"We're already now about 100 positions down than we were in the previous year," he said.

Fortunately, retirements have offset the problem in some respects, but without ever replacing funding or positions, it's becoming increasingly difficult to trim.

"We're all kind of sitting back on the edge waiting to hear," he said. "I have not been to any meetings where they have shared any positive news."

The superintendent has long maintained his desire to avoid cutting teaching or staffing positions.

"Any way you slice it, when you cut personnel, you cut services to children, and it makes the remaining personnel have to do everything they can to get the job done," he said, adding, "When you see how the kids have performed in light of the cuts, I think we have done a pretty good job.

"We have to, I guess the term I have heard used is 'due diligence' in everything we do, make sure we don't have waste out there and fully utilize the dollars that we have and getting the most bang for the buck."

At the same time, even during a slow economic period, districts must still keep pace with state mandates and federal guidelines.

"Requirements remain the same regardless of the cuts, regardless of the budget," Taylor said. "There's been no relief, and I don't really see any relief in sight. We're going to do the best job we have with the budget in place and hopefully provide the same quality of education in services.

"I hope people will be calm and not get excited until we get all the news."

There have been some positives in the midst of the repressed economy, however, Taylor said, particularly in the area of facilities.

"I'm certainly excited about the work we did last year, being able to complete three projects -- Brogden Primary, Mount Olive Middle and Greenwood Middle -- and on the heels of that, being able to work with the county commissioners in moving forward and getting things started to get the additional two projects at Eastern Wayne Middle and Norwayne under way," he said. "I just think in this economy, that's great.

"We didn't really know if we would ever be able to start and make progress. I appreciate County Manager Lee Smith and the county commissioners' efforts in working with us to put education as a priority and to put ... renovations at these two sites in place. We have got the wheels moving, doing what we need to do, to obtain funding and get that under way."

Next up is to take both the school board and commission out to review the architectural sites, probably in January, Taylor said. Meanwhile, the plan is to begin construction in the spring and have it completed by the following year.

Granted, they are renovations and not brand new schools, he added, but they will still be an improvement on the aging structures.

"It'll be a lot better than what we have in place now," he said. "Certainly the communities and the kids and parents deserve that."

Another feather in the cap of the school district is the CRCs, career readiness certificates, for which Wayne County has become a leader, with about 62 percent of recipients coming from its high schools.

"It has put us on the map. We're No. 1 in the eastern region," Taylor said.

That was accomplished because of great collaboration between the schools, Wayne Community College and local business and industry.

"I think the schools getting on board with that has really over the last few years bridged the gap between the schools and the community," he said. "Certainly, we're working together. Our part is to provide the testing. Businesses have worked on getting profiled."

Collaboration will also be important when it comes to the school board.

Currently, there are three new members, two joining since the recent election and a third appointed by the county commission when veteran member Shirley Sims stepped down mid-year.

"Certainly as we go into the new year with that newly formed board, it will be important for all of us to work together as a team," Taylor said. "I think our board members are dedicated to work for what's right for children."

The theme of teamwork also played out when the superintendent was recognized for his commitment to coordinating school health programs across the district. In November, he was named 2010 N.C. Healthy Schools Superintendent of the Year.

Entities like the WISH school-based health centers have proven to keep students in school, to curtail lengthier absences due to illness, and to link services for those who might be lacking. In effect, it is also expected to benefit the graduation rates for students down the road, Taylor said.

Another vital piece to quality education can be found at home, the superintendent said.

He continues to encourage parents to become, and remain, involved in their child's education.

"That's important," he said. "And certainly anyone in the community that would love to volunteer, mentor or what have you, contact the school principal. That extra set of hands is important and particularly in light of reductions -- I don't want to say cutting people -- if we have to make further reductions, those extra set of hands are very important.

"The schools will do their part in working with these children but we can't do everything. Whatever help we can get from parents -- academically, discipline-wise -- will help us be successful and the students, too."