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Declining enrollment takes toll on BOE budget

Washington County Finance Director Brad Hale talks declining student enrollment with the Washington County Board of Education.

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

The Washington County Board of Education was tasked with a challenge from the Washington County Commission Budget Committee during their last meet up; balance the budget and do so to where the amount of fund balance reserve dollars used from year to year is minimized as much as possible.

Finance Director Brad Hale came before the school board during the Thursday, May 18, called meeting in order to decrease the roughly $3 million out-of-balance budget figure. Hale explained that the fund balance reserves should contain about $5 million but $2 million of that amount is required to remain untouched.

“If we really have to pull that much out of there, that’s going to put us down to about $3 million in that fund balance,” Hale said. “We only have $1 million cushion from our minimum. So come next year, we can’t do the same thing because it won’t be there. So that’s some of the resistance we ran into.”

Hale also said the goal is to, throughout the next few years, get the budget balanced to where the reserve dollars are not used. However, BOE chairman Jack Leonard referenced the board’s budget history when it comes to the fund balance.

“I’ve been on the board for seven years and we’ve always dipped into (the reserve fund),” Chairman Jack Leonard said. “I know others have been here longer than me and we’ve always had to go into it to balance it. That’s what worries me about trying to build it back up.”

Refraining from using the fund balance wasn’t the board’s only obstacle; Hale told the board that since 2011, the Washington County School District has gone from roughly 9,100 students to 8,400 students at the end of this year’s school year. This continued decline resulted in a 155-student enrollment loss for the county in the last year. It also left the school system with $560,000 less in state Basic Education Program funding.

At the county commission’s last budget meeting on April 27, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge addressed the decrease in student enrollment and how it could effect the school district’s budget.

“If our enrollment has shrunk by 10 percent, I guess my question would be have we seen a decrease in overall staff?,” Eldridge said. “I don’t know, but my thinking is maybe it’s time we start considering how we staff these schools recognizing, again next year, we’re gonna be back here with the exact same problem. We’re going to have our costs escalating at a much higher rate than our revenue’s growing. And our enrollment is going to decline again. We’re digging a whole here we’re never going to get out of.”

Because of the declining student population, Hale said the school district will absorb as many positions left by school system employee retirements, resignations and non-renewals as possible. However, some of those roles will have to be refilled, Hale said.

As for instructional aides, the board previously discussed cutting back on the number of IAs in the school district, but Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton said no additional IAs will be removed other than those each school’s principal chooses to cut.

When it came to raises within the school district, the BOE still opted for raises for all employees including support staff after school board member Clarence Mabe made a motion to include a two-percent raise for all employees in the budget. Other than board member Mary Beth Dellinger, all school board members voted in favor of the motion.

Halliburton also expressed her thoughts on raises within the school district and any future decisions on the topic.

“I would like to give everybody a raise, I really would. You know, it’s conflicting for me as much as it is you all,” Halliburton said. “I’m just wanting to be more competitive with our teacher raises and our assistant principal and principal raises.

“I’ve got three years left and during my tenure, I want to see something done toward teacher salaries. And I think we are going to eventually have to do something that might not feel good to another group in order to do it because we have declining enrollment and a limited budget. We’re going to have to make some tough decisions in order to be able to offer teachers a raise.”

After making the motion for two-percent raises for all employees, Mabe said he’d also like to look ahead in regards to raises for Washington County teachers.

“I’d like to see us do a study and have a plan and in five years be in a certain way with our teacher salaries,” Mabe said. “And we may have to do that and say our regular employees can’t go along with us on that. To be competitive with Sullivan County and Johnson City, we’ve gotta step it up.”

The Tennessee Education Association’s report for teacher salary schedule average salary ranking for 2015 to 2016 ranks Washington County behind six other Northeast Tennessee school districts (Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Rogersville, Greenville and Sullivan County) and above the remaining seven (Greene County, Hawkins County, Elizabethton, Unicoi County, Carter County, Hancock County and Johnson County).

Though teacher salary schedules have been the topic of conversation at multiple BOE budget meetings, Philip McLain also mentioned that preparing for the costs of any career and technical education facility planning will be an additional expense for future budgets. Halliburton said the board has not yet voted to approve any CTE plans just yet, therefore figures for that project are yet to be determined.

The academic magnet school—which is slated to take residence in the Jonesborough Middle School building once the new Jonesborough K-8 school is built—is another upcoming budget item the board discussed during the meeting. The Jonesborough School and the academic magnet school are projected to cost around $20.8 million. Halliburton said the project will undoubtedly be costly, but she also believes it could aid the county in declining student enrollment numbers, among other obstacles.

“I just think you have to offer a variety of different approaches to attract different parents like we talked about before. Until we get our enrollment back up—and I think these specialized programs will do that—it’s big picture, the decisions we make,” Halliburton said. “They’re critical to attracting parents and boosting our enrollment so that we can do something about teacher salaries. All of that goes hand-in-hand. If we continue to loose students, we can’t do anything about teacher salaries in the short-run. So we’ve got to work on that.”

The commission’s budget committee will discuss the school board’s budget at their meeting on Friday, May 26 at 9 a.m. at the conference room on the first floor of the Historic Courthouse in Jonesborough.