By Beth Lawrence
A request from the Jackson County Public Schools superintendent to release funds took a turn and essentially wound up in the toilet, leading Superintendent Dana Ayers to say on Monday, “We do not have any litter boxes on the premises of any Jackson County Public school nor do I ever plan to have such.”
At the Board of Commissioners’ Jan. 10 work session, Ayers and County Manager Don Adams updated sitting commissioners as to how the previous board allocated funds for schools during fiscal year 2022-23 budget talks.
Adams, at the time, proposed to give schools $8,600,097, a $168,629 increase over the previous year’s funding to include $7,168,303 for current operations, $141,928 for payment in lieu of taxes, $847,067 for teacher supplements and $442,799 for counselors.
Adams was reluctant to increase the amount further because in recent years state schools had been given extra money through American Rescue Plan Act funding, and details about the state budget were not forthcoming when the county formed its budget. He suggested setting aside $445,300 in contingency should the schools need it or until JCPS learned how much state funding they would receive. Adams arrived at those numbers based on the general increase in the Consumer Price Index.
“We just didn’t have a lot of information at the time when the recommendations were being presented to the Board of Commissioners about how much should be allocated to the schools,” Adams said.
Commissioners at that time approved the funds, and on Jan. 10, Ayers requested the funding be released to the school system.
Ayers told the board that the school system had set aside $500,000 of its own budget in fund balance at the end of the 2021-22 school year.
“But knowing that we were going to need to pull it back out to make sure that we could meet our budget for the year,” she said.
She told commissioners that schools did not need as much money as originally thought, a $661,000 projected shortfall, because a staffing shortage had helped offset costs. Not paying those salaries gave schools a bit more money to work with.
When Ayers’ presentation ended, commissioners asked several questions about how funds were allocated to schools and how much money schools had socked away for a rainy day.
Chairman Mark Letson asked if funds for operations covered the salaries of bus drivers, teachers’ assistants and custodial staff, the positions that are short staffed.
Ayers replied that it did as well as covering areas like electric bills.
Commissioner Mark Jones asked what percentage of the school system budget was required to be held in fund balance.
Ayers said JCPS typically sets aside two to three percent.
JCPS fund balance was “healthy but not overly abundant,” she said.
Use funds for litter boxes?
Newly seated Commissioner Todd Bryson said he had no problem with the fund balance and supported funding for staff and teachers because they deserved it. He questioned how operations funds could be used.
“When you say operations, is that for like the expenses of the schools being run?” he asked. “Can that be used for anything like say for upgrades?”
“Operations is for power, utilities, all of those types of things,” Ayers replied.
“So, when it comes to like upgrades to the schools, I guess what I’m getting at here, previously I think the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners approved for litter boxes to be put into their schools,” Bryson said. “I don’t want that. I don’t want to vote on that.”
“Nor do I,” Ayers said.
“You won’t do that?” Bryson asked.
“No,” Ayers replied with a chuckle.
Sylva Herald Editor Dave Russell has pressed Ayers to address the litter box rumors many times over recent months. She refused to entertain the discussion at all until Monday.
Transylvania County Schools Superintendent Jeff McDaris refuted what Bryson asserted.
“We do not have litter boxes in our restrooms,” McDaris said. “We have never asked for funding for kitty litter. I don’t know where the commissioner, he or she, may be getting that information.
“That sounds like a rumor that we heard back in the fall that was going around the state, including here, that seemed to have originated on Facebook,” he said.
Rumors of school districts across the country installing litter boxes for students identifying as animals have circulated social media since at least 2021. The allegations picked up steam when Republican candidates from local to national levels began espousing the unfounded claims.
Some have since walked back statements when their assertions were debunked by the school district they named.
Only one school district in the U.S. confirmed that it provides a bucket of litter to classrooms. Since 2017, Jefferson County, Colorado schools, which includes Columbine High School, have given emergency lockdown supplies to classrooms, including first aid items and a litter bucket for bathroom needs should schools go into extended lockdown, according to Time Magazine.
Commissioners voted to release the funds to JCPS at their Jan. 17 regular meeting.