School budget time
Stephanie Myers
Cresting the wave of the current fiscal year’s budget shortfall that resulted in four teacher positions being cut after employees retired last year, Lenoir City Schools is hoping they are in the calm of the fiscal storm for the coming budget.

As school administration prepped for the current year’s budget, several things seemed to financially go wrong. State and federal funding were slashed due to sequestration and sales tax revenue also saw a decline.

As a result, four teachers, technology upgrades and much-needed new buses were put on hold, Lenoir City Schools Superintendent Jeanne Barker said.

“It was kind of like a perfect storm last year,” Barker said. “Everything hit at once.

“We have initial information that our federal budget will not be cut any more, so I don’t know if it will be back to the level that it was before last year but we’ve been told it will not decrease anymore this year, which is not the best news but at least it’s not the worse news either,” she added.

Business Manager Jeanie Mowery said Lenoir City will receive final revenue numbers toward the end of this month. The district draws revenues from state and federal funds and local property and sales taxes.

The district expects around $19 million in total revenue and $19.3 million in total expenditures, according to Lenoir City’s 2014-15 general purpose budget proposal.

“The jury is still out a little bit on what local taxes are bringing. Until we really know we’re not comfortable saying how much of these things that have been requested can go into the budget,” Mowery said after the board approved Thursday the 2014-15 continuation budgets on first reading. “This coming year we hope to see a little bit of improvement in that (revenue).”

After updating the elementary and middle school’s Internet bandwidth with the help of E-Rate funding this budget year, Lenoir City High School awaits upgrades. E-Rate funding provides discounts of up to 90 percent to help eligible schools and libraries obtain affordable telecommunications and Internet access based on the school’s location and student economic status. The high school does not fall under that category, and Barker anticipates the district will dip into the reserve fund to make the projected $400,000 necessary upgrades. The budget proposal states there is $4.3 million in total reserves and fund balances.

“That is something that we have to do in order to keep up with the demands of Internet access, reporting to the state, tests and teaching, the way we want to teach with technology, so in order to accomplish all those things that we must do we have to upgrade our technology infrastructure at the high school,” Barker said. “That is going to be the biggest budget impact item that we will have.

“In order to continue the kind of education process that we need to do we are going to have to probably go into our fund balance, and that’s just the reality of it,” she said. “We just don’t have that extra $400,000 laying around.”

Mowery said health insurance premiums should remain stable for the upcoming budget. Premiums jumped 4 percent in the current budget.

“Luckily next year they’re saying there will be no increase,” Mowery said. “That will be a huge help because in past years that has been as much as 25 percent in one year. We got into a cycle for a while where they were increasing anywhere from 20 to 25 percent a year. Recently it’s been more like 7, 8 (percent).”

Barker said the district also hopes to offer a salary increase as a way to “retain and attract” faculty. With last year’s cuts, the district was not able to offer a salary increase but all employees received a 1.5 percent bonus.

“That would be a high priority as far as I’m concerned. I think the board as well, so we have to do some technology things but we also, I believe, need to make sure we take care of our teachers and staff,” Barker said. “It’s very important we are able to attract high quality teachers and retain those teachers that we have. I think it’s very important that we focus on doing everything possible we can to insure that they have a competitive salary.”

Barker said she hopes to replace at     least two of those four positions lost last year.

“In addition we are looking at some help with a new position to help out with RTI which is Response to Instruction and Intervention. We will be asking for another position in the school district to work with students and teachers,” Barker said. “And then we also have a couple requests for additional pieces of equipment like we have a school bus that we need. That’s another huge expense.”

The school budget will face a first reading Monday evening at Lenoir City Council. A final reading will be held in the beginning of June after the school board discusses the budget in detail at their retreat May 30-31.