By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

mwaters@heraldandtribune.com

The Washington County Board of Education managed to approve a balanced budget that will make its way to the Washington County Budget Committee meeting on Wednesday, June 13.

The $68 million dollar budget included absorbing 13 teaching positions left vacant by retirees and resignations. It also included required salary step increases while the board stepped back on opting for raises for all employees in attempt to balance the budget.

“I’d love to give a one-percent raise,” Interim Director of Schools Bill Flanary said, “but I think this year, it’s going to cost. This is not the year to do it.”

Washington County Department of Education Finance Director Brad Hale told the board that for every 1 percent raise, budget expenses would increase by $461,000. He also said the only way to fund raises in the upcoming budget would be to reduce staff.

Hale also informed the board that during the county’s budget committee meetings, county officials were clear that the school system would not be receiving any more funds beyond the approximately $67 million allotted from tax revenues and basic education funding, thus putting an emphasis on balancing the school system’s budget.

“They very clearly said, ‘We want you to understand that amount, $67 million, is all you’re getting,’” Hale said. “‘You’re not getting any additional money from the county. That’s what you have to balance your budget on.’ So this amount is what we have. They made it very clear that there’s nothing else.”

To balance the budget, the board opted to use $1 million from the system’s fund balance, leaving the budget at $68 million. Hale also informed the board that an unforeseen expense has bounced back from the county budget to the school system. Hale said that auditors are requiring that the school system foot the $370,000 bill for system liability insurance for the district’s buildings and contents inside those buildings.

“We have state auditors that are now auditing our books. They said (having the county pay the cost) is a violation of the statute because the county does not own the buildings or the contents,” Hale said. “This is $370,000 the school system now has to swallow that we did not have to do in the past. Obviously in this budget year, that hurts.”

The board agreed to have Flanary and Hale bring the balanced budget as well as a request for funds to cover the $370,000 to the budget committee.

But numbers weren’t the only part of the discussion when it came to the budget; board members also discussed reconsidering academic coaches in the county school system when board member Mary Beth Dellinger made a motion to reduce the number of academic coaches from 12 to four. However, the motion was later withdrawn to keep the positions.

“I’m hearing that there are possible projected overcrowding in classes and I would like to reduce the amount of academic coaches,” Dellinger said. “I questioned these positions last year and we don’t need to take away from direct services to the classroom.”

The board added seven academic coaches last year in an effort to place an academic coach in each school in the system. The former director of schools, Kimber Halliburton, was an advocate for adding academic coaches, which are designed to improve student academic skill and performance while also assisting educators in classroom effectiveness.

Hale said three of those 12 positions are federally funded while nine of those positions are funded through the general budget.

Meanwhile, board member Annette Buchanan said she’d like to see Dellinger’s idea of reducing academic coaches restructured.

“I think your academic coaches, in some cases, have been working really well because they are familiar with certain grade levels over other grade levels,” Buchanan said. “So if you’ve got an academic coach that is K-3, that’s where they concentrate, that’s where they work, that’s where they’ve spent their classroom time. They really know how to bring up those teachers in that area.

“I would like to see it restructured to where you have a K-3 academic coach, a 5-8 academic coach in ELA and a 5-8 academic coach for math. Those are the things that we are really hitting at. It would reduce the amount that we needed, but it would also I think give our teachers more support in what our county needs to get those teachers there.”

In considering a reduction in the amount of academic coaches, Hale reminded the board that those tenured educators who are currently academic coaches would have to be put back in a classroom, taking the spot of a non-tenured teacher. He also said reducing those academic coaching positions wouldn’t save the budget the cost of a tenured teacher salary. It would instead be a savings of what a an average, non-tenured teacher earns, which would, he said save somewhere between $58,000 to $60,000 counting benefits and all.

Meanwhile, BOE Chairman Jack Leonard held cautions on potentially firing the others in those positions. Flanary also said, in his first meeting as the interim director since former Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton’s resignation, that he felt cuts weren’t necessary to balance the budget.

“This doesn’t bode well, but my first statement would be to disagree with this motion,” Flanary said. “You can balance your budget by leaving those 12 people in place. If you cut those people, those are real people, who have families, that will lose those jobs. If you pull back on that number, then the remaining coaches become system-wide and they’re not as effective that way. If they’re not in the school, on that faculty, embedded at that site, they’re not as effective. They’re seen as central office staff and they just don’t do as good.

“I hear what you’re saying about their specialties. That’s a valid point. These principals have got to find ways to use their strengths to be the best of their ability at that school.”

Flanary also suggested that the board consider coach sharing to better target the areas in which certain teachers need assistance.

Other board members, however, were concerned about non-renewals acquired from the end of the school year.

Board member David Hammond was concerned about the 13 non-renewals from the school year and the non-tenured teachers the school system’s director of human resources, Susan Kiernan, said were yet to receive a letter. Hammond said he felt too many cuts were made last year after the board expressed they wished to keep it at a certain number of non-renewals.

“How do we guarantee that won’t happen this year? How do we guarantee an upfront and open conversation that we know exactly who’s being removed and this board’s not being honored when they make a vote on this budget?

“(the non-renewals) affected the classroom in my opinion. I want the least amount of cuts to the classroom.”

Hammond stressed that he was referring to the number rather than the names of employees who did not receive contract renewals, but school board member Clarence Mabe reminded the board that the task of hiring and firing employees within the system belongs to the director of schools.

“Is this a board decision, who is let go and who’s not?,” Mabe said. “Or is that the superintendent’s that we just hired? We can’t tell him who he can do what with.”

Flanary, however, said they would be looking at “every school and every position” following the non-renewals.

“If you adopt a budget tonight, those people who didn’t get contracts, we’re going to call the principals and we’re going to put them back on payroll before some other school gets them.”