County faces new standard, but with no new funds

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tough new requirements for high school classes in Tennessee and no money to pay for them in Marshall County are problems county commissioners and school board members are facing for budgets starting July 1.

The extent of the problems was revealed in a two-hour meeting Thursday attended by the county commission's education committee, members of the school board, and school system officials - all gathered in the Courthouse Annex.

"If we get to talking about money we'll get depressed," said Commissioner Larry McKnight, chairman of the education committee.

But it was unavoidable.

The Tennessee Diploma Project (TDP) was explained by Beverly Miller, supervisor of secondary instruction, and Lyn Stacey, career technical director. The project aims to graduate young adults ready to join the work force or enter college without needing remedial courses in their freshman year.

Miller provided statistics showing how Tennessee lags behind most of the nation in educational quality, and how Marshall County lags behind the state as a whole. She then outlined TDP requirements, which include taking mathematics in all four years of high school and make chemistry and physics mandatory, in addition to biology. There are also new demands for guidance counselors and for more physical education.

"That is a big challenge for us," Miller admitted. "This is an unfunded mandate."

She estimated that it would cost the school system an additional $1 million per year to fully implement the TDP.

"We wanted you all to know where we're at," McKnight said. "We're at rock bottom.

"It's going to be a tough year."

Furthermore, Marshall County is owed almost $600,000 in taxes, and with unemployment at 20 percent and companies going bankrupt, there seems little hope for county finances to improve, he said.

Commission Chairman Billy Spivey said Marshall County is repaying a great deal of debt - more than any of the surrounding counties.

"We're $800,000 short in sales tax," added Commissioner Mickey King, chairman of the county Budget Committee. "We're suggesting a five percent cut in all areas."

That raised a question from Schools Director Roy Dukes.

"If we cut five percent from the school budget, would it pass the state's maintenance of effort standard?" Dukes asked, mentioning a state requirement that school budgets can't be cut.

Beyond that, the schools director said, "We've got to fund the Diploma Project."

School Board Budget Committee Chair Kristen Gold noted no good alternative.

"The only significant way we can cut costs is eliminate personnel," Gold said. "It's hard to get big savings without a detrimental effect on the children. Education is a long-term benefit to the county. It's not like streamlining a manufacturing process."

McKnight countered: "There's cost-saving in all organizations."

"We have tried," school board member Ann Tears said. "We just can't do it any more. Our back is against the wall."

Gold agreed: "There's only so far we can squeeze."

"Help us out," McKnight pleaded. "We're not against education."

School board member Craig Michael offered a prediction: "If we don't fund education, unemployment will get worse."

Randy Perryman, another board member agreed.

"We have to take care of our children," he said. "We have to make them competitive."

Dukes took a broader stance and offered a suggestion.

"The state is already saying the budget will be worse for education next year," he said. "We have to meet these state mandates. We need people to contact their state legislators and tell them to put $27.7 million back in the state budget for capital outlay. It's sad. It's bleak. It's awful. We have to remember we're working with the lives of children."

"Yes," McKnight said. "There's no excuse not to e-mail legislators on that."

Failing to find an easy way out of their dilemma, the group adjourned after two hours, with everyone agreeing with Gold when she said, "That's enough for one night!"