The North Carolina School of Science and Math’s Morganton campus is in jeopardy of having to postpone its projected August 2021 opening as the school has yet to receive its $1.4 million in allotted funds from the state.

The next General Assembly session is scheduled for April 28. NCSSM Chancellor Todd Roberts will meet with colleagues at the UNC System and the NCSSM Board of Trustees within the next two weeks and then a decision will be made after the consultation, according to NCSSM Director of Western Campus Planning Kevin Baxter.

In December, The News Herald reported that the North Carolina School of Science and Math’s Morganton campus faced a threat to its timeline to start classes in August 2021 due to a budget impasse at the state level ahead of the North Carolina General Assembly’s Jan. 14 session. As the Jan. 14 session resulted in yet another impasse and the budget was not approved, the school’s options are “very limited,” according to Kevin Baxter, director of western campus planning.

“We were mapping towards this Jan. 14 General Assembly session,” Baxter said. “The intelligence we had received was encouraging, that there would be some sort of positive breakthrough as it related to our project. So, we’re in this gray area for the next few weeks here as we work through the outcome (of Roberts’ consultation with UNC and the NCSSM Board of Trustees).”

NCSSM submitted a biennium budget request to the state for fiscal years 2019-20 and 2020-21 in which the General Assembly agreed to $1.4 million for 2019-20 and an additional $1.9 million for 2020-21. Fiscal years start July 1, which puts NCSSM nearly seven months behind schedule to date. The school planned to fill 14 “critically important” positions with the budgeted funds, according to Baxter.

The positions include department chairs for math, science, humanities and computer science/engineering and an associate registrar in charge of students’ class scheduling, grades and transcripts. Additionally, NCSSM planned to hire a director of capital projects who would be involved in the design and operation of all the facilities on campus.

According to Baxter, when North Carolina Senate President pro tempore Philip E. Berger announced the General Assembly would not meet again until April 28, it was a “really alarming timeline for (NCSSM’s) process.”

“We have already lost more than 7,000 hours (since the start of the 2019-20 fiscal year on July 1,)” Baxter said. “These are jobs that were critically important to build out the infrastructure in every way for this new campus — the student information system, data-tracking capabilities, finance/budget, human resources and IT operations.

The budget impasse also hinders NCSSM-Morganton’s recruiting and curriculum design processes, Baxter said.

“We are required to be recruiting 10th graders across the state in earnest to make sure they understand the programmatic distinction in (NCSSM) Morganton versus (NCSSM) Durham,” Baxter said. “We had always been mapping toward a very different point for the initial hires of looking at 23 months until opening. It would be hard for a student or a family to be willing to take a chance on a program when they have to apply before even knowing if there are personnel on the ground.”

What happens next?

Within the next two weeks, Baxter and Roberts will convene with officials at the UNC system and the NCSSM Board of Trustees to decide the next step in the planning process.

From there, in the two weeks that follow, they will meet with elected leaders of the state, as Baxter said the end of February is a point by which the NCSSM needs clarity.

Until then though, Baxter emphasized that NCSSM will not compromise the quality of their institution, regardless of the obstacles it faces.

“The biggest takeaway, especially in this region, that I hope people will trust is that the institution is fully committed to delivering a high-quality educational program and a campus that the citizens of this region can be proud of,” Baxter said. “We are not at all interested in sacrificing the quality of the program or the facility because of environmental circumstances like we’re facing.

“We’re holding firm on that commitment and making sure that whatever solution emerges checks those boxes.”

Johnny Casey is a staff writer and can be reached at jcasey@morganton.com or 828-432-8907.

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