School issues loom large in Loudon

Officials split on teacher raises, building program

Hugh G. Willett
LOUDON - The question of whether Loudon County can afford new school buildings and raises for teachers seems destined to become an issue in the race for county mayor.

The school board will present its 2010-2011 budget to County Commission on April 19. A projected shortfall of some $580,000 will put the issue of raises for teachers into play just in time for the May 4 primary.

Teachers were denied raises in the 2009-2010 budget, as were most other county employees. The poor economy and the need to fund the school building program were cited in a debate last year that split the board and county commission.

If the commission declines to fund the shortfall again this year, the school board could be forced to put the raises or the building program back on the chopping block.

"The only choices are to cut spending on operating expenses, including salaries, or to take money out of the building fund to pay for operations," said County Commissioner Don Miller.

For county mayoral candidate Mark Matlock, the debate is an opportunity to show how his approach to the budget is different than his opponents.

The Lenoir City architect and developer said he is sending a letter to more than 600 teachers in the Loudon County school system pledging his support for teachers' raises.

The solution to funding the building program is to grow the total revenue base by making the county more attractive for new business, Matlock said. Education is directly related to economic success, he said.

"Good schools will bring businesses into the county, which will help us pay for new buildings, roads and the other things the citizens need," he said.

Lenoir City Mayor Matt Brookshire is a teacher in the Lenoir City school system. He said one of the reasons he is running for county mayor is because he's concerned the county might be forced to choose between teacher pay and new buildings.

"What Loudon County cannot do is to put off either of these issues," he said.

The first step is to get the commission and the board to agree that increased teacher pay and the building program are both essential to the future of the county, Brookshire said.

School board member Van Shaver is also running for county mayor on the strength of his support for the school building program. Shaver is also one of the most vocal proponents of fiscal responsibility on the school board. He feels the solution is to cut school operating costs.

"From the get-go I have made it clear that I support some form of raises for all our school employees," Shaver said. "I have also been clear that I support phase one of the building program. Both can be accomplished but not without some sort of budget cuts."

Shaver supports cutting out nine intervention specialists for $250,000, and reducing professional development and travel expenses. "Anything not related to education of children should be cut," he said.