School systems budget gets the OK

Friday, July 31, 2009

The education committee approved the school system's budget for the 2009-2010 school year when it was presented to them Tuesday night.

Members of Larry McKnight's committee voted three to one to pass the schools' budget on to the County commission's budget committee. The lone dissenting vote came from Don Ledford, who was concerned about drawing from the fund balance.

"We've got to cut something or we're not going to make it," Ledford said. "I don't see how we're going to make this fly with the rest of the County budget."

"We're trying to decrease the amount we take from the fund balance every year," said schools director Stan Curtis, who was on hand with finance and budget director Janet Wiles, and school board budget committee chairwoman Kristen Gold.

"I really appreciate you not asking for extra money," said committee member Rocky Bowden. "As unpopular as tax increases are, I'd rather see that than borrowing from the fund balance."

"It's not great management to keep doing it," acknowledged Wiles. "Eventually we'll have to get some property tax money."

"If there's any way to cut the amount taken from the fund balance - it's a must," said committee member Billy Spivey.

"There's only so much you can cut and provide quality education," Gold commented.

"I don't think we can cut a teacher," Wiles said. "The classes are full."

"What if the budget committee doesn't take our recommendation?" asked chairman Larry McKnight.

"We'll have to cut expenses or find revenue," answered Ledford.

"We're bound by the Maintenance of Effort (that the state requires)," Spivey pointed out.

"Don't interpret my remarks as anti-education," pleaded Ledford. "As you sit around the table with the County departments, remember we're all in a bind; everybody has to cut."

Curtis, Wiles and Gold answered questions as McKnight, Ledford, Spivey, and Bowden went through the budget page by page.

"What's going to happen on (teachers') medical insurance?" asked McKnight.

"It's going up 10 percent in January," Wiles explained. "The board approved picking up 75 percent of the additional cost, which adds about $160,000 to the budget. A teacher with family coverage will be paying about $30 per month more."

"I'd like to see you picking up all of the increased cost," Bowden said.

"There's no money for that!" exclaimed Wiles.

Spivey questioned the $20,000 in the budget for "tuition," and Curtis explained that this was the differentiated pay plan that had been negotiated with the Marshall County Education Association. If teachers go back to school to get certification in one of the difficult-to-fill fields, they can have tuition reimbursed up to $3,000 per teacher, capped at a total of $20,000 per year.

"What's the commitment?" asked Ledford.

"There's a four-year commitment," Curtis explained. "If they leave before the four years are up, they have to pay back what they received for tuition, on a pro-rated basis."

Gold pointed out to the education committee that one of the additions to the budget was money for creation of the alternative school.

"It was a program of Curtis' that the board really supported," she said.

"I like the alternative school," said Bowden, "But I don't like that it's available to zero-tolerance kids."

"We got on the Target List for the graduation rate at Marshall County High School," said Curtis, referring to the Adequate Yearly Progress results. "When the zero-tolerance kids come back, they're behind, and then they quit school and that hurts our graduation rate. With an alternative school, we can keep them in the system and, hopefully, graduate them."

Curtis and Wiles did not try to conceal the fact that federal stimulus money is taking care of $300,000-worth of expenses in the schools budget this year.

"If we didn't have it, we'd be $300,000 behind," Curtis said.

The County school system has 27 months to spend $600,000 of stimulus money. When that runs out, Wiles said the hope was that IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) funding would have increased, or that local revenue would have gone up.

Two recent contentious issues - the school resource officer for Lewisburg Middle School, and the salary for the new transportation supervisor - were briefly discussed, but accepted by the committee as budgeted.

"Were there any increases in bus drivers' salaries?" asked Spivey.

"No," said Wiles. "There's no additional personnel, and no raises."

"What did the city say about the SRO?" Spivey asked.

"They agreed," said Curtis. The school board had approved offering to pay $30,000 of the LMS SRO salary, and the City of Lewisburg had agreed to pick up the rest.

"Everything you judge a school system by - test scores, graduation rates - goes down when you start making cuts," said Bowden.

"We can't carry on services in the County with the revenue we have," McKnight said, agreeing with other committee members that Marshall County's short-term financial future looks bleak.

"We'll top 20 percent unemployment in large fashion," predicted Spivey.