School board trip paid by maintenance fund

Hugh G. Willett,

LOUDON - Does the Loudon County school system need $10,000 for maintenance more than school board members need a trip to Nashville?

That's the question asked by several members of the Loudon County school board about a conference in Nashville on Nov. 15. The answer turned out to be "no" - and a vote for the trip.

Of all the issues that created controversy in the Loudon County schools' budget battles last spring, few subjects were more hotly debated than money for school maintenance. In order to balance the 2008-2009 budget, the school board eliminated line items totaling more than $1 million, including the money for board travel.

The subject of travel and maintenance came up again at a school board meeting last week when it was suggested that board members might want to attend the Tennessee School Board Association annual meeting in Nashville on Nov. 15.

The issue immediately brought questions from board members, including newly elected board member Van Shaver.

With no money in the travel budget, Shaver asked, how was the board to pay for the conference, which was estimated to cost about $10,000 for the entire board to attend? If board members wanted to attend, they should pay for the trip themselves, he said.

Superintendent Wayne Honeycutt suggested that the money could be transferred from the maintenance budget, setting off a disagreement among several members of the board who felt the schools needed the maintenance money more than the board needed the trip to Nashville.

"The (board of education) and even the County Commission have been criticized for not providing funding for school building maintenance," Shaver said. "We have heard many times about the lack of funding being the problem with the deterioration of the buildings."

Board member Lisa Russell said she could not vote for transferring money from maintenance to the travel fund when the board was trying to find $15,000 to improve the road at Loudon Elementary School.

After some discussion, the board approved the $10,000 transfer on a 6-3 vote, with Russell, Shaver and Steve Harrelson voting against the motion.

"The next time someone is critical of the commission for failure to properly fund maintenance, maybe this might help to explain what happens to the money," Shaver said.

Board member Gary Ubben said he voted for the motion because he thinks the trip, which includes a number of educational seminars, would be valuable for the board members.

"The board is responsible for a $35 million budget," Ubben said. "It's important to be well informed."

The budget is just a planning document, Ubben said. At the time the travel budget was being eliminated, it was not yet known how much money the school system might have available, he said.

Ubben said he is not discounting the importance of maintenance.

"I would have preferred that the money come out of somewhere else," he said.

Loudon County activist Pat Hunter said she is upset that the board would make a show of cutting expenses during budget negotiations and then reverse its decisions a few months later.

"The school board has a lack of credibility when it comes to these budget cuts," Hunter said.

The board also voted during negotiations to cut $36,000 in board salaries but then reversed itself, voting the salaries back into the budget, she said.