County school board delays budget vote
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG  Banner Staff Writer
May 14, 2014 | 1703 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bradley County’s Board of Education voted Tuesday to delay a final vote on the school system’s budget for the 2014-15 year after concerns were raised over how the budget lined up with Tennessee’s funding formula for education.

It all started with the premise that the budget includes less money than it did last year.

“This is the most difficult budget we’ve had in my tenure,” Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel said.

During a meeting on April 29, Rick Smith, the school system’s business office manager, presented the board with its first look at the proposed budget.

The budget for the school system’s general purpose fund totals $69,310,500. However, budgeted expenditures are said to be down 0.9 percent from last year.

Referring to it then as one of the most “challenging” school budgets he has faced, Smith pointed out the spending was cut because the school system had a projected revenue loss of 0.8 percent.

The number was based on an estimate from the county property tax assessor’s office which did not show any tax revenue growth for the 2014-15 fiscal year, he said. While sales tax figures were estimated to increase, Smith said those figures were too uncertain to be factored into the budget.

The 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, which Smith said accounted for the 0.8 percent loss figure.

McDaniel said Tuesday the decrease meant the possibility of not being able to refill teaching positions vacated due to retirements, and having to shift some positions around.

“Because of the sequester,” he said, federal funding for special education is down, which was accounted for in the budget by moving three special education teaching positions to the general purpose school fund. Three regular teaching positions will not be refilled because the special education positions replaced them in the budget.

McDaniel stressed issues like having an adequate number of personnel were priorities for the budget, and local schools even retained nontraditional positions like technology coaches.

After the explanation and no more discussion, school board member Troy Weathers proposed passing all three budgets presented to them that day — the general purpose school fund, the capital outlay budget and the cafeteria fund. Fellow board member Rodney Dillard seconded the proposal.

Board member Chris Turner said he was apprehensive about passing the budgets, because he took issue with how the local budget aligned with the state funding formula.

During April 29’s meeting, Smith had explained why the estimated state revenues had decreased by 1 percent.

Tennessee allocates the state funds using a formula called the Basic Education Program. Smith said then that it is based on a county’s “ability to pay” for schools’ needs through things like local taxes. He cited the belief Bradley County will remain the 16th “richest” county in terms of “ability to pay,” even with the projected decreases in revenue.

Turner said Tuesday he believes the BEP formula allocates more money for the local school system than Smith had estimated.  

Using the “Tennessee Basic Education Blue Book” for this year, a state-issued booklet which explains the formula, Turner estimated the state’s target of what local schools should budget for instructional funding was 30 percent, compared to the 26.32 percent the school system had allocated in its budget.

He also said the formula dictates the school system should be including 25 percent of its own money in a budget for classroom funding, instead of the 21.62 percent in the system’s proposed budget. The local amount budgeted for nonclassroom funding was also lower than Turner’s interpretation of the state funding formula — 42.95 to the state’s “local target” of 50 percent.

Turner said he was concerned too much money was being taken away from those categories of funding and put toward projects like building renovations. He stressed the BEP also includes allocations for capital projects.

“The formula provides to every system [money] to replace assets every 40 years,” Turner said. “We are contributing more locally.” 

The proposed capital projects budget for the 2014-15 year totals $1,400,000.

While he said there were building-related projects needing to be addressed at multiple schools, the school system is struggling to budget for all of them and still keep teachers on staff.

Using Lake Forest Middle School as an example, he said roof repairs are needed so badly there, teachers have to mop up water in their classrooms after a heavy rain, and “our children and teachers deserve better.”

McDaniel said the BEP formula “does not translate into a spending formula.” 

Board member Nicholas Lillios, who had in previous school board meetings suggested allocating more money toward saving for future capital projects, said he would not support the budgets as they were presented.

“I’m not satisfied with how we are spending our resources,” Lillios said.

Turner said he wants the school system to “be more transparent about where priorities lie” by comparing the budget and the state BEP formula “side by side” and evaluating what differences exist and why.

He proposed a substitute motion that the budgets not be voted on until such a comparison can be made.

Smith protested, saying it would be a “several-week job” to do that, and it could likely not be done before the school system’s scheduled budget hearing before the Bradley County Commission on Friday.

“It’s going to be a huge, labor-intensive task,” said Smith.

Dillard defended the budget by stressing it has long differed from what the BEP suggests. For example, he said the school system currently has 11 school nurses, which is more than suggested by the formula.

Turner argued the BEP formula is a “road map” that “redistributes” the funding in an equitable way.

If something is added to or cut from the school system’s budget, he said “our taxpayers deserve to know at what trade-off.” 

Board member Charlie Rose lamented the fact the board did not begin discussing the budget earlier than April 29.

Rose said the Bradley County Schools system has continually had to balance the issues of maintaining aging school buildings and the need to add to the number of teachers because of growing student populations.

“We’re going to have to start meeting earlier,” he said. “We haven’t planned and done a few other meetings ... That’s why we’re here.” 

The substitute motion to delay a final vote on the budget and take a closer look at how it compares to the state formula passed 4-2. Board Chair Vicki Beaty, Lillios, Rose and Turner voted in favor, and Dillard and Weathers voted against. Board member Christy Critchfield was absent.

Beaty said there was a possibility the board could schedule a special called meeting to discuss the budget further, but no date or time has been set.