GREENSBORO — Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras is proposing the district charge students a fee to play sports if they do not qualify for free or reduced lunch.
It’s one of several budget-balancing proposals listed, but not elaborated on, in a news release the district sent out last week. In that release, officials said the district is facing tough budget choices this year due to a K-3 class-size reduction mandate from the state and anticipated increases in pay and benefits, after eight years of budget cuts.
In North Carolina, local school districts may charge an athletic fee and the state does not set any limit, said Burt Jenkins, health, physical education and Title IX consultant for North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the state’s largest school district, instituted a fee starting in the 2010-11 school year. They charge $100 per season for high school students and $50 for middle school students.
Alan Duncan, chairman of the Guilford County Board of Education, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the board has discussed adding a fee at times over the past decade, but never acted on it. He wants to continue to learn more about the budget situation this year before taking a position on the issue.
“I’m willing to think about it,” he said.
Contreras also is recommending cutting 51 of the district’s roughly 500 teaching assistant positions, reorganizing the district’s central office, increasing class sizes in grades 6-12 by one student per class, and closing High School Ahead Academy.
Schools spokeswoman Nora Murray declined to share additional details about the proposals, such as how much a fee might be. She said Contreras and other staff will wait until the board’s budget work session at 11:30 a.m. April 19 in the school administration offices before commenting further on the proposals.
According to Murray, High School Ahead Academy allows students who are a year behind students in their age group, for whatever reason, an opportunity to catch up to students their age by 9th grade by accelerating classes from 6th to 8th grade using a compacted curriculum.
Duncan said if it becomes clear the board is giving serious consideration to closing the school, they should hold a special designated public hearing on that topic.
“It would be important for us to sit down and talk with people and hear them express their views,” he said. “That’s what we’ve done in the past.”
The board is holding a more general public budget hearing at its regular meeting April 27.
Reached Tuesday, board Vice Chairwoman Darlene Garrett said, in particular, she’s disappointed to see the proposal for reducing teaching assistants. Wes Cashwell, one of the board’s newest members, stressed a similar point.
Under the proposal, teaching assistants would not be eliminated and the district will try to reassign staff to vacancies where possible. Still, Garrett said, teaching assistants are vital to elementary school. There’s just so many things they do that people don’t realize, she said. That’s anything from helping with small group instruction to supervising pickup and drop-off before and after school.
“It seems like whenever we have to make cuts we always go to the teaching assistants,” she said, pointing to budget decisions made in past years. “I’m just very, very, very uncomfortable with that.”
Ultimately, it’s the board that approves the budget, so it’s their decision. April marks the beginning deliberations for the group. They’ve got to send a request for funds to county commissioners by mid-May, but budget plans will stay in flux, affected by the budget deliberations of both county commissioners and state legislators. Typically, the school board passes an interim version of the budget by the end of June, while still waiting on final funding decisions from the other bodies, and winds up finalizing it later in the summer, or even later than that in some cases.
Board members are waiting to see what the state legislature will do about K-3 class sizes. Last legislative session, the House and Senate passed a change that would decrease K-3 class sizes.
Right now, the superintendent’s budget proposals, including these cuts, are based on the assumption that a compromise bill will pass, requiring lesser cuts to class sizes.
Garrett said if House Bill 13 passes, district leaders must make up a shortfall of more than $4 million. If it doesn’t pass, they are looking at more than $16 million to make up, just from that alon. So they are rooting for HB 13.
“We really need the Senate to move that along for a vote,” she said. “That’s really what’s hanging over us the most.”
This is Contreras’ first time making budget recommendations for Guilford County Schools, where she started in August. Previously she served as superintendent of schools in Syracuse, N.Y.