Board gets first look at budget
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG Banner Staff Writer
May 01, 2014 | 1469 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print

First impressions of the preliminary budget presented to the Bradley County Board of Education Tuesday night had some of its members concerned about the possibility of having to cut teaching positions.

Rick Smith, the Bradley County School system’s business office manager, presented school board members with a first look at the possible budget for the 2014-15 year, and this year’s budget saw “an overall decline.” 

The budget for the school system’s general purpose fund totals $69,310,500, but that includes what he said represents a projected loss in revenues. Budgeted expenditures are said to be down 0.9 percent from last year.

“This budget has been one of the most challenging ones I ever faced,” Smith said.

Estimates from the county property tax assessor’s office show no growth in projected tax revenue for the 2014-15 fiscal year, he said. Sales tax figures have been projected to increase by 1.5 percent when compared to the 2013-14 year, but Smith said that has not been reflected in the 2014-15 budget due to the uncertainty of those estimates.

The Bradley County school system’s budget projects a 0.5 percent decline in local revenue and a 1 percent decline in state revenue. However, federal revenue is set to increase by 4.8 percent.

That, Smith said, means the budget had to account for a 0.8 percent revenue loss.

Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel said when compiling the budget, there were several priorities:

1. Staffing, which includes paying teachers’ salaries;

2. Instructional support;

3. Technology support;

4. System-wide utilities and operating costs;

5. Maintenance of school facilities;

6. Transportation, including maintaining school buses;

7. Contract services like those utilized for janitorial work; and

8. Making up for a shortfall in the amount of federal funds provided for special education.

While not No. 1 on the list, McDaniel said special education requires some special consideration this year.

“Because we [as a country] have faced sequester, it has impacted our federal budget,” he said. “We’ve had to move positions to our general purpose budget.” 

While a set state funding criteria referred to as a Basic Education Program dictates that Bradley County could have as many as 70 special education teachers, Smith said the system currently has 50 positions.

Smith said he and his colleagues in the business office “don’t feel it’s wise” to reduce special education funding, because the system could already stand to have more special education teachers.

The amount of money in the fund for special education necessitates moving the salaries for three teaching positions into one in the general purpose fund in order to keep those positions, he said.

However, that could mean having to eliminate three general teaching positions. Smith said the school system would still meet class size requirements if that happened. He added that the eliminations would likely be in elementary grades higher than kindergarten, because kindergarten numbers can be difficult to predict from year to year.

While “not ideal,” Smith said the school system could also consider transferring teachers to different schools if, say, one school has too many teachers and one does not have enough.

McDaniel said another concern in terms of special education funding is that the system needs to purchase a new wheelchair-accessible bus this year.

Another challenge Smith said Bradley County’s school budget is facing is why it has seen the aforementioned 1 percent loss in state revenue. The state chooses how to allocate funds to public schools using something called the Basic Education Program formula.

Smith said that formula is in part based on a county’s “ability to pay” for school-related needs through revenues from things like local taxes. Bradley County is the 16th “richest” county in terms of “ability to pay,” but it remains a school system that is one of the lower-funded ones in the state.

Other obstacles include increased health insurance and retirement plan costs for system employees.

While the school system budget for expenditures is said to be down by nearly a whole percentage point, McDaniel said there are other needs that lie outside the eight “priorities” he mentioned.

Those include spending money for safety updates in school buildings, updating technology in all the schools, taking care of principals’ capital outlay requests, contracting for roof and HVAC repairs in multiple school buildings and providing funding for projects like an addition to the auditorium at Lake Forest Middle School.

The budget this year includes no extras like percentage-based raises for teachers. However, Smith said the system will continue to give some raises based on how long teachers have been on the job.

However, Smith said the budget must include $570,000 to be repaid to the city of Cleveland as part of a settlement from a sales tax dispute in 2009, a payment agreement that lasts until December 2015.

While the meeting primarily consisted of Smith informing school board members of how the budget was looking, some school board members pointed out that funding projects like the Lake Forest auditorium addition could require cutting other things out of the budget.

“Somebody’s got to start slashing the budget if that is the case,” said school board member Rodney Dillard.

During the April 10 meeting, board member Nicholas Lillios proposed starting a “program of savings for large capital outlays” that could be set aside and used in the event of lacking revenues. He said there were projects in the school system that needed to be funded, but receiving the funding for them was an uncertain thing.

In a move that fellow board member Chris Turner called both “very aggressive” and “responsible,” Lillios proposed the school system set aside $2 million in savings for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

However, after the budget had been presented Tuesday night, board member Troy Weathers said that would idea not work. While Weathers said he had in the past proposed a similar idea to the one Lillios came up with, it would not be possible during the upcoming year.

“I agree that we ought to start doing something,” Weathers said. “However, you can’t do anything when you don’t have anything extra.” 

He stressed he did not want to see the school system cutting personnel in favor of funding building projects.

The school board plans to hold a public meeting to discuss the budget in greater detail on May 13 at 9 a.m., at the school system’s central office, before it is submitted to the Bradley County Commission for approval.

Board members will have the opportunity to discuss their concerns related to the budget and vote on any changes they feel need to be made to it.

The school system is working with a May 16 deadline to have its requests turned into the Commission, and the system’s annual budget hearing will take place in front of the Commission on May 19.