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JEFFERSON — A special meeting was held by the Ashe County Board of Education on June 24 to work on the local budget. The meeting, which started at noon, was held in-person at the Central Support Services Annex and was open to the public.

No members of the public were present and those in attendance were Superintendent Phyllis Yates, Finance Officer Amanda Coldiron, Chairman C.B. Jones Jr. and Vice Chairman Dr. Lee Beckworth, as well as board members Keith McClure, Dianne Eldreth and Polly Jones.

Dr. Eisa Cox, who will be sworn in as the new Ashe County Schools Superintendent on July 1, was also present via phone call.

At the beginning of the meeting, Yates said she and Coldiron discussed and rationalized the budget items and came to the consensus of the recommendation to put the local budget on hold.

Yates said there are many unknowns from both the state and federal level and they still do not know which one of the three plans for the reopening of schools they will have to operate under.

“We think it would be prudent on our part to wait until after July 1, we need to see what the final state budget is going to be and we need to see what the final federal budget is going to be. And then I think we can better allocate funds from current expenses.”

After her initial statement, Yates turned the meeting over to Coldiron to discuss items in the capital budget.

According to Coldiron, out of the $200,000 and the $125,000 approved for fund balance, the school system has $325,000 to work with. School allotments, allotments of funds for school principals and allotments for replacing any equipment is taken out of that $325,000, which left a total of $181,000 up for discussion by the BOE.

The first item discussed was lighting for the auditorium at Ashe County High School. Since the auditorium is currently remaining unused, the board agreed that it would probably be best to reapply for the high school to reapply for this project next year.

There was also a request for new furniture and equipment for a computer lab at Mountain View Elementary, which was a project that involved discussion to put it on hold since the lab cannot be accessed at this time. However, there was also a request concerning the safety issue of the basketball goals in the school’s gym which the board decided to discuss further towards the end of the meeting. The goals no longer can be raised up or down without someone on hand to manually adjust them.

The Ashe County Early College has made a request for an additional teacher, which was an issue on which Cox provided some insight. She said it is a possibility, but before they commit to another teacher she would like to sit down to discuss the needs and scheduling of the ACEC with Principal Elaine Cox prior to making a decision.

Ashe Early Learning Center is in need of an air conditioning system, as well as tables and chairs for its media center. The BOE has previously discussed the possibility of starting to hold their monthly meetings there since the room in which they currently house their meetings is too small for large gatherings.

The facility is twice as large as the Central Support Services Annex but its high ceiling proves a challenge to sound projection during meetings. To resolve this issue, Coldiron said she spoke with Maintenance Director Jerry Baker about the possibility of lowering the ceiling.

Another issue the BOE has experienced while holding meetings in the AELC’s media center, is the fan system which is loud. During the summer months, the room gets hot and the fans would need to be turned off due to the noise they produce.

Regarding the Informational Technology and Media portion of the capital budget, Coldiron said they completed a separate request for the chrome books, which was denied. However, they believe some of the money received from the CARES Act will cover the first wave of replacements of chrome books.

According to Coldiron, the chrome books need to be replaced in phases and the school system intentionally designed it that way so all of the laptops purchased would not need to be replaced at the same time. However, Google extended the life one more year, which means two groups of the school’s laptops will need to be replaced at the same time.

Coldiron said Ashe County Schools received more than $60,000 from the CARES Act from the State and they also put an additional $200,000 in the federal CARES Act money.

Cox added some additional information to the discussion about the three plans for reopening schools. She said Plan B, which would be a combination of both in-person instruction and remote learning, would be an expensive option.

She said Plan A would be the most ideal plan in her opinion, which would provide them with additional expenditures such as safety protocols in place. Students will still need devices to use for learning purposes in the event schools will return to a more restrictive plan.

Cox said she spoke with Yates, Director of Technology Amy Walker, Director of K-12 Curriculum/Federal Programs Julie Taylor and other ACS staff members about the potential of developing some policies and procedures around students being able to take devices home on a regular basis to become familiar with them.

Funds have been received by the school system to implement wi-fi hotspot locations throughout the county for students and families who do not have internet service at home to utilize.

Yates said Walker and others have been looking at additional spaces for these hotspots to be set up aside from local fire departments. Walker has also been exploring the option of using school buses, which would be parked at different locations within county limits.

The next topic of discussion was a metal cover to protect the Literacy Express, which is a $300,000 piece of equipment. Although it is not a safety issue, the BOE decided to pursue the metal cover to protect their investment in the bus.

Future plans for the Literacy Express and its continuation will be discussed when the BOE meets about the local budget.

According to Coldiron, Support Services did not have any capital requests.

The school system has previously discussed the purchase of an activity bus, which they revisited during this budget meeting. The cost of the 26 passenger bus would be $57,979. Coldiron said they have enough money to cover the purchase in their savings.

The other options were 14 passenger, 18 passenger and 72 passenger buses.

The BOE decided to move forward with the purchase of the 26 passenger activity bus.

Next on the list of budget items to be discussed was the request by Director of Maintenance Jerry Baker concerning some paving and water drainage issues at Ashe County High School. The board decided to move forward with these items due to safety concerns.

There was $96,000 left to allocate at the end of the meeting, which does not include money for the purchase of Chromebooks.

Prior to adjournment, the BOE talked about how much money they need to consider for masks and sanitation products amid the COVID-19 pandemic for any in-person instruction that may take place this school year.

Yates said there will be a meeting between Baker, assistant principals and custodians to discuss the bulk purchase of safety and cleaning supplies so every school will be using the same products.

Regarding masks, they have looked at both cloth and disposable masks. The main concern which was voiced by Yates was the washing of cloth masks daily by parents or students. One suggestion, made by Beckworth and Eldreth was the schools washing masks for students.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper is expected to announce the chosen plan for the reopening of the state’s schools by July 1. At this time, each school system will then determine whether or not it will be able to return to instruction under that plan.

Cox said the school system will need to be prepared for any of the three plans because at any time, the state could require schools to operate under a more restrictive plan.

Yates said schools can opt for either the plan announced by Cooper or a more restrictive plan. However, they cannot choose a less restrictive plan and if Cooper announces Plan C, it would be the only option under which schools can operate.

Regarding the results of the survey that was sent out to parents online about their child returning to school or remaining at home for instruction, Yates said it was about a 50/50 split.

“We feel like there’s enough numbers there that we’re going to have to be able to offer some options for those students,” Yates said.

Students will need to decide between the two options and stick with it if given the option to physically attend school or complete their instruction at home.

Teachers will not be responsible for teaching classes virtually and in-person. Yates said staff will need to be repurposed and there will be designated teachers that would teach remotely.

Prior to adjourning, the BOE voted to approve the metal cover for the Literary Express, the parking lot repairs at the high school, the lowering of the roof of the media center at the AELC and the purchase of the activity bus.

Coldiron said the approval of these expenses totaled $143,011.

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