Loudon County debates quality of education at budget hearing

The Loudon County Commission's public hearing on the 2015-2016 budget Monday turned into a referendum on the quality of education in the county.
The board of education's request for a 6-cent tax increase to help fund a $1.6 million shortfall will go before the commission for a final vote on June 29. If the commission does not vote for the increase, the schools will be faced with major cuts or resorting to reserve funds.
"We are underfunding Loudon schools," said BOE member Dr. Gary Ubben.
The county spends about $600 per pupil less than the regional average, he said. The lack of funding also results in the loss of good teachers to school districts that pay better, he said.
Loudon County resident Richard Truitt said he was concerned about education, particularly the fact that Loudon average ACT scores have dropped to 17.5 in recent years. He also said the schools should live within their budget.
Loudon County Chamber President Michael Bobo presented the commission with a resolution supporting schools as a way to build a better business climate and support improved employment opportunities and a high quality of life.
To achieve such a goal requires the creation and maintenance of an excellent school system, which requires supporting and paying its teachers and providing students with technology comparable to other school systems, he said.
Better schools will create a higher standard of living said former county Mayor Harvey Sproul. He said that he recalls the effort to bring projects such as Tellico Village to the county. "We were going to put Loudon County on the map," he said.
The county used the new property tax revenue to improve roads and other facilities to help recruit new industry and better jobs. A key part of the growth formula should have been improving the schools, he said.
"The schools continued to lag. The CEOs of the new companies went to Farragut. It was the schools. They had a perception that Farragut was better," he said.
Richard Anklin, a frequent speaker at commission meetings, told the commission the practice of funding operating shortfalls from reserves was not sustainable. He also challenged the idea that teachers were leaving the district because of low pay. Of the 22 teachers that left in recent years, 11 went to Knox County for lower pay, he said.
Anklin said he believes there is always room to cut expenses, not just on the schools but across the entire county budget.
Pat Hunter told the commission there is more to education than spending money. Parental involvement is key to better performance. She also pointed out that the district has lost about 550 students in the last five years, which should have reduced the schools' budget.
County commissioners made few remarks during the hearing. Commissioner Van Shaver reminded those in attendance that the budget committee approved the school budget contingent on the BOE being able to fund it. "They have millions in reserve," he said