Spite Vote?

County tax rate reduction worries members of BOE
Jeremy Nash-News-Herald.net
A recent recommendation by the Loudon County Budget Committee to reduce the Board of Education’s budget by 2.8 pennies, amounting to about $296,000 less for the county district and $154,000 less for Lenoir City, has board members leery the reduction could prove detrimental for the upcoming school year.

School officials held a special-called meeting Friday afternoon at the county office building after county commission requested the BOE lower its proposed 2014-15 school year budget to $36.2 million — and it did so unanimously — but not before some members showed hesitation resulting in two motions to reduce the $36.5 million, with the first failing 5-3. Board member William Jenkins was not in attendance.

Director of Schools Jason Vance initially supported the board lowering the budget before learning about the 2.8-cent decrease the county budget committee has proposed to be taken out of the general purpose school fund. The current number of pennies reserved for county Fund 141 is 0.9121.

Budget committee members have made a recommendation to reduce that figure down to 0.8982.

“If they cut us down to $36.2 million instead of $36.5, and they reduce our maintenance of effort by $300,000, in essence you have 100,000 less dollars to operate next school year than what you had for this current school year,” Vance said. “So I think the board needs to take that into consideration and make a decision if we’re going to keep with $36.5 and you guys request me to come back to county commission, increase it or reduce it.”

County commission will hold a public hearing on the budget at 6 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Loudon County Courthouse Annex. With approval of $36.2 million, Vance said the roughly $300,000 removal could drop the budget down to $35.9 million, which would be “really tight.”

Members fear if the $296,075 is taken out of Fund 141 there could be dire consequences, even personnel cuts, Leroy Tate, BOE member, said.

BOE Vice Chairman Ric Best agreed with Tate, saying the school board had a “proved budget” of $36.5 million and should leave the proposal as is. Members approved a $36.5 million proposed 2014-15 budget in May.

Board member Jeremy Buckles said Vance’s original recommendation of $36.2 million was a “responsible budget” to run the school system.

“With county commission now and with possibly even lowering the tax rate, I think that it would be a good thing for us to sit down and say to the county commission, ‘Look, we’re willing to work with you. We’re willing to come back with a 36.2, which (was) Director Vance’s recommendation,’” Buckles said, adding the reduction was at least meeting commission in the middle.

Buckles said agreeing to compromise “puts the ball back in the county commission’s court.”

“Well here’s the thing about it, we sent 36.5 down there and their budget committee met and said, ‘We’ll give you 36.2,’” Tate said. “Now they’ve come back and I don’t know what’s got into them, but they said, ‘We want another $296,000 — or I’m going to say $300,000 — out of there.’ Well that’s done shot our budget all to pieces. We’re talking about cutting people that we got to have to teach the kids.”

Buckles motioned to reduce the proposed budget to $36.2 million, with a second by board member Scott Newman, as long as county commission didn’t change the tax rate.

“We can’t tell them how to do the pennies,” BOE Chairman Bobby Johnson Jr. said.

The board retracted talks of voting for a change if county officials didn’t touch the tax rate. Members voted 5-3 in favor of $36.2 million, but needed one more vote to pass. Board members Best, Phil Moffett and Gary Ubben voted against.

Best said he would change his vote to yes if he could see “goodwill from the commission” to not reduce maintenance of effort.

“This utilities was the best guess,” Tate said. “Even with the savings built in and the new buildings, we added more square footage and more lights so there’s really not that big of savings on electricity, and we didn’t even increase that, so there’s another thing that’s really shaky.”

Ubben said the decrease was a “spite move” by county commission.

Ubben made a motion to adjourn, but upon further discussion that motion was removed so members could retry voting for $36.2 million. Best motioned to vote again, and Buckles seconded. Members voted unanimously in favor.

In a follow-up interview, Vance said lowering the budget to $35.9 million could cost jobs, programs and put the 2 percent raise to teachers in jeopardy.

“I believe that with the board’s actions tonight, the county commission should be inspired to in turn work with us in order to make sure that we’re doing what’s right by the kids of the Loudon County Schools system, the teachers of the county, as well as the county as a whole,” Vance said. “... I believe that the county school board has put forth a good faith effort to try to reach out and say, ‘We hear what you’re saying. Let’s figure out a way to move forward.’”