Commissioners continue to debate county school budget

Mary E. Hinds News Herald

The Loudon County Commission continues to wrestle with the decision on whether to finance an additional $793,000 for the county schools proposed operating budget for 2009-2010 or to use that money to help finance the system's proposed building program. 

At a commission workshop Sept. 16, Loudon County Mayor Doyle Arp kicked off the discussion by reminding commissioners they are "looking at the bottom line, you can't line item the school budget."

The system's proposed budget is approximately $38 million and the school board is considering how, when or if to begin Phase I of the school building program. Estimates on the amount of money needed to complete the first phase of the plan range from $30 to $48 million. 

Director of Loudon County Schools Wayne Honeycutt answered questions about the school system's proposed budget and gave the commissioners statistics on how Loudon County ranks compared to other schools in teacher salaries, per pupil expenditures and per capita income. According to his stats, of 17 area school districts Loudon County ranks 15 on that list spending $7,341 per student - below the state average of $8,345. The county also ranks below other local systems in teacher salaries. Honeycutt's stats also show while Loudon County ranks eighth in the state in per capita personal income at $32,715 the county ranks 82nd in the 2007 tax rate. A county's ability to tax versus how much it actually taxes effects the amount of Basic Education Program (BEP) funds each county receives from the state for education. 

Regardless of how the county schools rank against other systems, most commissioners seemed to feel the county cannot afford to increase the operating budget and put away funds for the building program at the same time. "The board understands this is a conservative county - no one likes to pay taxes but they want the benefits," Honeycutt told the commissioners. "We'll work with you," he added but said "we can't sacrifice the operating budget to get a building program. We need them both." 

County Commissioner Don Miller presented a handout outlining how the county has increased property taxes by 40 cents over the last four years. Out of the property tax, which 39 cents went to the system's operating budget and 15 cents to the building program. This comes to about an 8.6 percent per year increase in the operating budget over the last five years compared to 2.6 percent increase in inflation and "very little student population growth."

Miller disagreed with putting an additional $793,000 in the operating budget this year when that amount "would support an additional loan of almost $10 million for the school building program." He told the commission "now is not the time to put more than $700,000 into the schools' operating budget." School officials reminded Miller some operating funds are being eaten up complying with unfunded state and federal mandates including the No Child Left Behind program. Miller said he had previously asked for a list of these mandates so he could better determine how much they were costing. 

Commissioner Austin Shaver agreed saying if the operating budget gets the funds it will "all but end the building program." Commissioner Nancy Marcus disagreed saying it is "programs and people" that increase learning and test scores not buildings. Commissioner Harold Duff agreed with Marcus saying neglecting the building program in the system "for 25 years brought us to this state"  but "curriculum and employees are the most important factor" and cutting the proposed operating budget "is going to effect the kids." 

Shaver said while he agrees people and programs are important it is not a "the chicken or the egg" situation. He told the commissioners it's not just about what goes on in the classroom when a lot of county students are not in classrooms but in "trailers and storage closets." Shaver also said having textbooks and teachers is good but not if the schools are falling down around the students' ears. He suggested the solution is for the county to "give a little on both ends." 

Judging by comments and questions from commissioners at the meeting, the commission seems divided on whether or not to increase the school system's budget for operating expenses. With the budget already overdue, the commission will vote on the entire county budget Oct. 12. Speaking after the meeting Miller said since the commission can only give the school system a bottom line amount but has no say in how those funds are allocated, the budget can move forward and be sent to the state for approval. 

If the school system's proposed budget is rejected by the commission, the school board will have to go back to the drawing board to find places to cut the projected $793,000 overrun to fit the amount of funds the commission approves Oct. 12.