Loudon commission gets revised school budget with shortfall

Hugh G. Willett, knoxnews.com

The 2008-09 Loudon County school budget and its $643,000 shortfall are in the hands of the County Commission.

"I would commend the school board for making major cuts," said Don Miller, a commissioner and budget committee member. "I'm not sure it's enough."

The school system expects $36.5 million in revenue in fiscal 2009. The school board originally asked for a $4.6 million increase from the county, and commissioners agreed to provide an extra $1.2 million. The schools only cut their requests to about $1.8 million, however, and asked commission to either provide the extra $643,000 or decide among options for cutting it.

Miller said commissioners will review the latest budget proposal at a workshop Thursday and may send it back to the school board for further cuts.

At a commission budget workshop Monday, the commission reviewed the total school budget as well as $2.5 million in approved school budget cuts, including $259,000 in health insurance premiums and $118,000 in technology funds.

Included in the budget is about $200,000 for teacher raises. Teachers eligible for step raises will receive 1 percent raises plus the step raise. Teachers not eligible for step raises will receive 2 percent raises.

The school board spent nine hours going through the budget line by line before presenting it to the commission, said board chairman Bobby Johnson Jr. "We've cut quite a bit to get the number we have here," he said.

The commission also reviewed another $400,000 in cuts suggested by the school board as a way of moving closer to a balanced budget.

Those items include $254,000 for nine family liaison positions, $54,000 for guidance personnel and $100,000 for maintenance. Even if all the additional proposed cuts were included, the budget would face a shortfall of about $200,000.

It's up to the school board to make the actual cuts, Miller said. "We can't tell them what to cut. They have to tell us."

The maintenance cuts are not really budget cuts but are a transfer of authority for maintenance from the school board to the county, Miller said. "Maintenance cuts are just a shell game," he said.

Miller said the commission will be looking at the total picture when trying to decide whether to accept the budget as submitted. "To understand this situation, you have to look at what we've already done for the schools," Miller said.

"That's more than inflation and more than the growth in students," Miller said.

Funding the $1.2 million increase is challenge enough for the commission, he said.

A proposed property tax increase of 8 cents in addition to moving 5 cents of the property tax from the general fund will be needed to fund the $1.2 million increase, he said.

Covering a $640,000 shortfall in the current budget would require that about 7 cents more be added to the property tax rate, Miller said.

School board chairman Johnson offered to schedule a meeting of the school board budget committee if more cuts were necessary.

Because of vacation schedules, the entire commission will not be able to vote on the budget until it meets again the first week of August.