ELIZABETHTOWN — Whether or not Bladen County students will be able to participate in an Early College program remains to be seen. Still.
Monday afternoon, Board of Education members and staff gathered for another round of hearing about Early College, a process that began in August at the board’s annual retreat. At the time, members heard about the program that would allow up to 300 Bladen County high school students at a time to participate in a five-year plan resulting in a two-year college degree along with a four-year high school diploma.
Unlike the College and Career Pathway, which is open only to those who qualify, Early College is open to students who want to advance, at-risk learners or first-generation college attendees. Board members approved the plan earlier this year, with the stipulation that it not cost the district any money.
For the school board, however, getting the program off the ground has been an uphill battle. Since it was first introduced, several board members have maintained the $275,000 promised in state funding would not be enough to cover the cost of the program.
Superintendent Robert Taylor began the meeting by telling board members he had confirmed via conference call with DPI that the $275,000 in funding would be allocated annually, not biennially, but it would not be available until next year. Just as he was continuing, board member Tim Benton interjected.
“I asked this question specifically,” said Benton, who has been a vocal opponent of utilizing local funds for the endeavor. “We have no money this year — we don’t get the first money until next year, and we’re making it look like we’re getting money we’re not getting.”
“I’m not done yet,” responded Taylor. “Until we enroll students, the state doesn’t send money … . We knew … if we didn’t have access to funding before (June 2017) we were in no position to start.”
Early College would be considered a school unto itself and, as such, would require a principal, guidance counselor, administrative assistant and college liaison, some of whom would need to be in place in advance of its launch. Since the state won’t fund the program until enrollment begins, the district would have to incur the costs of the positions until July 1, 2018, to the tune of approximately $67,000.
An additional concern voiced during the process has been the impact to local high schools. Taylor informed the board he expects the 60 students each year to be divided equally between East Bladen, West Bladen and outside the school system — that is, private or home schools. The latter of the three would mean additional funds for the district without incurring additional cost, since Bladen Community College would provide instruction for the students.
In addition, any administrative assistant, for example, currently being paid out of state or local funds and working in a school that might close due to consolidation would have his or her salary transferred to the $275,000 Early College funding, which would free up the former salary for use elsewhere.
“What if we didn’t close any schools?” questioned Carroll.
“There wouldn’t be any savings to us,” answered Finance Officer Sharon Penny.
Board members also learned from Child Nutrition Director Amy Stanley the district would prepare food at West Bladen and transport it twice a day to BCC using a van. After learning the child nutrition department is operating $150,000 in the black, board members also learned feeding the students at BCC would incur a cost and would lower the positive balance to approximately $134,000.
Both Benton and board member Roger Carroll voiced concerns about the program being funded at the same level as the first year. Carroll informed staff he had talked with someone in another county whose funding had decreased in later years.
“That’s what makes me think this is a startup (of $275,000),” he said. “If we don’t get this every year, how in the world are we going to fund it?”
“We recognize the state can snatch the rug from under us at any point, and it would be up to us to fund anything the state doesn’t fund,” offered Taylor. “But again, it’s something we definitely think worthwhile and worth investment.“
Asst. Superintendent Tanya Head agreed.
“This is a good program,” she offered. “If you look at state report cards, it’s the Early College models that are making the As and Bs. It’s good for kids, good for families, and good for the community.”
“It’s a lot of money to be spending on 60 students, if we get 60,” Benton remarked, adding the principal position would only be funded by the state if the district maintains 100 students in the program.
Board member Dennis Edwards suggested forming a committee of three people to talk with other counties in the same financial situation. Edwards, Carroll, Benton, and board chair Vincent Rozier were appointed to the committee, which will gather more information and report back at a special called meeting on Nov. 27 at 4 p.m.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.