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First draft of schools budget almost $4 million in the red

Budget Committee members voted to defer action on the first draft of the Washington County School System’s 2016 budget, which is $3.6 million out of balance.
During the May 13 meeting, Director of Schools Ron Dykes noted the system is significantly underfunded compared to surrounding counties, and reminded committee members the Race to the Top funds from the state are no longer being received.
“Textbooks came in much higher than expected, almost $1 million for textbooks for K-12,” he said in an overview of the expenses.
The Board of Education has proposed adding three positions, Dykes said, listing two band directors and a driver’s ed instructor for Daniel Boone High School. Ten instructional assistants are also needed.
In addition, the budget includes a 2 percent salary increase for all teachers and staff at the request of BOE members, he said.
Eldridge asked if school board members had considered the savings from combining its payroll operation with the county’s. “It’s approximately $400,000 a year in recurring costs for the schools to stay independent, in addition to a $2 million upfront cost for a new system,” he said.
Dykes said the new option may have lower costs, but he would take the committee’s suggestion back to the BOE.
“What is the rationale for maintaining an independent accounting system and staff?” Commissioner Joe Wise asked.
Dykes said the loss of autonomy, decision-making and the ability to expedite expenditures are the factors causing consternation among BOE members.
Following the presentation, Eldridge gave Budget Committee members the options to reject, accept or give further consideration to the schools first draft.
Director of Finance and Administration Mitch Meredith estimated a 24.6-cent property tax increase would balance the county schools budget and provide the matching amount to the city school system.
Commissioner Todd Hensley made a motion to give the budget further consideration. “I don’t think we’re ready to approve,” he said.
The motion was seconded by Commissioner Rick Storey and passed with unanimous approval.
Wise asked what percentage of the county’s teachers are at the 25-year maximum salary, and whether contract buyouts are an option.
“There is a potential to increase operating funds by $15,000, but you could put a dent in instructional experience,” Dykes said, noting it would take a $12,000-$15,000 offer to generate interest.
Director of Finance Beverly Thomas said 20 percent of the instructors are at the maximum salary, and the current plan offers $7,000 to teachers who have 25 years of experience and want to retire.
Eldridge asked Dykes to prepare a retirement incentive, based on Wise’s question, for the next budget discussion.
Dykes also submitted a request from the school board to move forward with the long-range facilities plan, specifically phases one and two, which include new elementary and middle schools in Boones Creek and Jonesborough.
The Budget Committee has approved building a K-8 to replace the Boones Creek schools, and providing funds to refurbish the schools in Jonesborough.
“What is the timeline for presenting (the recommendations) to the county commission?” Dykes asked.
Eldridge said if nothing changes, the recommendations will be taken before the full board in June. “It’s a matter of the county commission’s approving a funding strategy,” he said, adding Meredith is preparing options for consideration.