Loudon may face choice: build or raise pay

School board budget about $840,000 short

Hugh G. Willett, knoxnews.com
LOUDON - A budget shortfall may force the Loudon County Board of Education to choose between a raise for teachers and a long-awaited school building program.

The board met at a workshop Thursday night to discuss ways to balance the 2009-2010 budget. Preliminary numbers show the approximately $38 million budget about $840,000 short.

County Commissioner Don Miller confirmed after the meeting that any large school budget deficit would have to be made up out of the building fund. Taking $800,000 out of the building fund would keep the county from making debt service payments on $8 million worth of building projects, he said.

Schools Director Wayne Honeycutt, who received high marks from the board during his first-year evaluation last week, presented the board with a series of options for reducing the deficit, including an almost $384,000 savings that might be achieved by eliminating a 2 percent pay raise for teachers.

Other options included a potential savings of $340,000 by paying for textbooks out of the fund balance and $225,000 by eliminating one teaching assistant at each school, but it was clear that the most controversial option was the elimination of teachers' raises.

"I have an extremely difficult time recommending that," Honeycutt said. "We have people that are underpaid."

Loudon County teachers' average pay of $42,207 per year is near the bottom of the list of surrounding districts and below the state average of $44,820. Loudon's per-pupil expenditure of $7,341 per year is also below the state average of $8,345 per year, he said.

"Do we lose teachers because of this?" asked board member Gary Ubben.

"We haven't lost any teachers to districts that pay less," Honeycutt responded.

Board member Van Shaver said that the amount of money the county commission can provide is limited. Sending the commission a budget almost $1 million short might endanger the $20 million school building program, he said.

"I'd like to pay everyone a million dollars," Shaver said. "Anything we want to do costs money and I think this body has to make the decision about where we spend the money."

Board member Larry Proaps said the board has a duty to educate children and shouldn't be afraid to ask the county commission for what it needs to accomplish that task. The county is sitting on an $8 million surplus, he said.

Shaver reminded the board that the district has already spent $1 million on architectural plans for new schools in Greenback and Loudon.

"Are we here to educate children or build buildings?" board member Leroy Tate asked.

The current school buildings are inefficient and costing more to heat and maintain than modern buildings, creating a drain on overall resources that might be used to fund increased salaries, Shaver said.

Personnel costs have been among the largest increases in the school budget for the past few years, Shaver said.

"I don't want to fund the building program on the backs of the teachers," Ubben said.