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Dykes, Eldridge at odds over how to fund schools

A disagreement on the source of the problem, no action from state legislators, and an unwillingness to pursue one option that guarantees additional funds keep the Washington County School System and county commissioners at odds over the 2013 budget.
During a May 1 called meeting of the Joint Education Committee, school board members and commissioners discussed the request for the school system’s proposed budget, which shows a deficit of $4.2 million.
Director of Schools Ron Dykes said the lower-than-expected revenue is a result of less sales tax, lower interest earnings, and a decrease in state and federal dollars.
On the other side of the balance sheet are an increase in insurance premiums, required salary adjustments, additional hiring, and inflationary costs. Approximately $1.2 million is needed to buy textbooks and buses.
“It is a state law that we have to buy the buses regardless of how I find the money,” Dykes said. “We are in desperate straits if new revenue is not found for the Washington County School System. To maintain excellence, we need to receive adequate funding and we need to receive it immediately.”
Dykes insists it is the responsibility of the local government to provide that money.
“The state is funding Washington County above the state average, and it is incumbent upon the county to make up the difference,” he said.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge says fiscal capacity is the issue, and Washington County funded the school system within less than $2,000 of its capacity during 2011. Based on the numbers, Eldridge said there is no question the county is being underfunded by the State of Tennessee.
“This is an indication of the disagreement between Mr. Dykes and I on where the problem is,” he said.
Dykes said they would have to agree to disagree on that point.
Committee members seemed to be unanimous that changes to the BEP funding formula used by the state will not take place this year, nor will answers be received anytime soon from appeals to state representatives and the governor for assistance.
Eldridge said the problem in Washington County began in 2007 when a change was made to the BEP funding formula. Then a property tax assessment during 2009 increased the value by more than a quarter of a billion dollars, but no new revenue created a hole in the funding.
“Until four months ago, nobody said anything about it. It was allowed to fester and grow without anybody dealing with it,” he said.
Eldridge said his personal goal is to have the problem fixed within three years. “But I can’t justify the state average (per pupil expenditure of $9,084), which would be a $16 million property tax increase,” he said.
“We got way behind and aren’t going to catch up in one year.” Washington County’s current per pupil expenditure is $8,098.
School Board member Jack Leonard said the schools need immediate help. “Mr. Dykes has mandates he has to fill or the state will come in and take over the schools,” he said.
Eldridge said Washington County schools are nowhere near the point of a takeover by the state, and agrees with investing in the success of the system.
“What doesn’t make sense to me is a problem that has existed in Washington County since 2007, but is being put on the backs of the taxpayers in 2012,” he said.
Commissioner Lee Chase, chair of the Joint Education Committee, said passage of a sales tax referendum would be a help in providing additional funds, and asked for an update from school board members on efforts toward that goal.
“We’ve had no other communication since the joint meeting,” Phillip McLain said, referring to the meeting with the Johnson City School Board in August 2011.
Chase said the Johnson City Commission did not accept the county’s proposal of an interlocal agreement that would restrict all of the additional funds to education.
“We’ve heard nothing further,” Chase said and asked Mabe if he had communicated with the chair of the Johnson City School Board about promotions, to which Mabe answered no.
“It sounds like somebody sitting around waiting for somebody to do something,” Eldridge said.
School Board Member Mary Lo Silvers expressed concern regarding the few weeks left before the August referendum is scheduled to take place.
“Everyone was all excited, talking about bringing their family and friends to vote (in favor), and all of the sudden it just stopped,” she said. “I don’t know what happened, but we need to get on the stick.”
School Board member Chad Williams asked if the county commission had passed a resolution.
Against some county commissioners’ opinions, placing the referendum for a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the August ballot passed during the December 2011 meeting.
Commissioner Mark Larkey said the information needs to be compiled so it can be in the hands of parents before school is out.
Dykes said he didn’t want committee members to go away from the meeting thinking the referendum hasn’t been promoted. He has made presentations to the faculty, civic clubs and parent-teacher associations.
“What is not occurring is a unified charge by all four bodies, but the word is out there,” he said.
Silvers asked if Johnson City plans to help with the promotion.
“I don’t think you’re going to see any engagement from the commissioners, but the Johnson City School Board is interested in working with this board,” Eldridge said.
Williams said the commissioners aren’t the ones who have to face the parents in the schools.
“We’re the only county in the state that gives 100 percent of its sales tax to the schools,” Eldridge said.
A deal struck with the commission last year when the school system used its own fund balance to fill the deficit in that budget also commits the commission to providing $1.6 million toward recurring costs.
At the end of an almost two-hour discussion, Chase charged committee members with developing some creativity before the next meeting.