By MARINA WATERS
“It comes down to the fact of do you have money to spend or not,” Washington County Board of Education member Phillip McLain said during the school board’s second budget meeting on April 18 at the central office. “When you go to the grocery store, do you buy the steaks or the hamburger? That’s what it amounts to.”
Later, the board unanimously voted for a two percent raise for all Washington County School employees, leaving the budget out of balance by $1,449,440.
“My hope is eventually while I’m here, to give teachers raises,” Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton said at the previous school board budget meeting on April 13. “I just hope we can do it. But we’re going to have to look at what we can cut, given the picture that the mayor is painting for all of us. And I don’t even know if we can do it when we cut. But that’s my hope and that’s my dream to do that.”
At the April 13 meeting, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge reminded the board of the budget funding parameters after last year’s 40-cent tax increase in part for the school district’s new school projects.
“We have no new revenue. We’re really in a situation where we’re going to be for the next several years.” Eldridge said to the board. “Folks, this is a tough situation. I think you know the county commission is not going to raise taxes. I don’t think we even have to elaborate on that. Every department across the county is facing these exact same circumstances.”
The district is also facing a loss of $560,000 in state basic education program funding due to a decline in student enrollment by 155 kids.
“This (losing 155 students) is huge for our system,” Interim Finance Director Jerry Whitaker said. “If we maintained or kept those 155 students in our system, we could come away with $560,000 more dollars. So everything counts as far as the students go. Students are counted even for square footage and custodial. They’re counted for substitutes. All that counts.”
Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton said the school-age population is shrinking in Washington County and there are few people within the child-bearing age group moving into the region adding to the school district. The district did, however, add 203 special education students this year.
Though raises could be on the horizon in Washington County, cutbacks on instructional assistants were also part of the discussion at both budget meetings this month.
Halliburton said that Washington County has an overage of IAs and the Tennessee Education Association’s education support professionals report states that the Washington County School District had 214 classroom aides for the 2015 to 2016 school year, the second highest total for IAs in the Northeast Tennessee region behind the Sullivan County School District with 232 classroom aides. Johnson City had 88, Kingsport had 80, Greene County had 113 and Carter County had 140. TEA is still compiling the results from their annual survey for this year’s totals.
“So what I’m saying is, if we continue to keep that many instructional assistants, I don’t know that we will ever really be able to give our teachers a significant raise,” Halliburton said. “And I want us to be competitive. I want teachers to want to stay with us, quite frankly. And I want to attract quality assistant principals and principals.”
TEA’s teacher salary schedule average ranking report for the 2015-2016 school year lands the Washington County School District at the seventh spot out of the 14 school districts in Northeast Tennessee and 64th out of the 145 state school districts with an average salary of $47,587.89. Washington County is no. 2 in Northeast Tennessee county school systems behind Sullivan County in the same report.
While board member Todd Ganger said the added technology in the district could help keep students engaged and could therefore lead to less of a need for classroom aides, board member Mary Beth Dellinger questioned if reducing the number of IAs would cause problems for the function of each school.
“For what we’re paying these instructional assistants, the job they do is phenomenal in our schools,” Dellinger said. “They do RTIs (response to intervention), they work one-on-one with the students. I can’t even imagine what a lunchroom is going to be like without someone monitoring food allergies, diabetes, things like that. I don’t know. I want a plan in place for what to do.”
The average salary for classroom aides in Washington County is the second highest of the 14 school districts in Northeast Tennessee according to TEA’s educational support professional report of classroom aides for the 2015 to 2016 school year. Johnson City School District’s average is at $15.06 and Washington County’s is at $13.31.
“No one is arguing the fine job instructional aides do in our schools,” Halliburton said. “I’m saying that our ratio is much lower. I mean, we have an abundance of (IAs). To answer your question on who will do cafeteria duty, instructional assistants will still do that. What we’re talking about is reducing an amount. We’re not saying we’re going to leave schools in dire straights.”
At the previous budget meeting, Halliburton also said other changes could happen in terms of what an IA does in Washington County on a daily basis.
“We’re going to redefine the role of an instructional assistant. We really want them to be focused on the instruction. There are a lot of tasks I think they’re doing that could be more streamlined,” Halliburton said. “And this way we can guarantee to give raises because of our current budget situation. I mean, we might be forced to do this kind of thing anyway, given the dire straights of our sales tax and our declining enrollment.”
“In no way do I disvalue any of the work people do in our schools. It’s just the budget makes us all have to face some realities.”
The budget proposal will see the county commission’s budget committee on Thursday, April 27, at 3 p.m. in the conference room on the first floor of the Historic Courthouse in Jonesborough.