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Plan for Schools Goes to Commission

A funding plan to benefit Washington County and its school system received unanimous approval from the Board of Education and the Budget Committee, and will be recommended to the county commission during its August 29 meeting.
School board members agreed to cover the $1.6 million deficit with the system’s fund balance during the 2011-12 fiscal year. The now-balanced budget includes a 3 percent increase for all full-time employees, two positions to support the Tennessee Diploma Project, a printer for the Graphic Arts Department, an increase for diesel fuel, and the replacement of two instructional assistants and three nurse positions.
“These are the items that would be given new life,” Director of Schools Ron Dykes explained during the Aug. 16 called meeting of the Board of Education.
Mayor Dan Eldridge expressed his appreciation to school board members. “From the commission’s standpoint, this is not the year to raise taxes,” he said.
Eldridge said he would like to see the school board and the county commission agree on a vision. “My whole goal is to come up with a long-term plan for education,” he said.
In return for the board’s agreement to cover the deficit with its funds, Eldridge said he will recommend the county commission fund the $1.665 million in recurring costs beginning with the 2012-13 year.
Dykes asked if the additional $1.2 million for buses and textbooks that will be needed next year would be part of the recommendation, but Eldridge said he was not prepared to say where the $1.2 million would come from.
“From the standpoint of being able to commit to it tonight, I can’t do that,” Eldridge said.
Chairman Phil McLain said the board will be “looking at tightening our belts next year.”
The school board’s decision was discussed during the next morning’s meeting of the county Budget Committee.
“The board is satisfied this is a prudent way to go, and it gives us a little breathing room on revenue,” Dykes said.
However, he encouraged Budget Committee members to make the commission aware of the additional costs over and above the $1.6 million in recurring expenses.
Eldridge said it is important for Budget Committee members to understand the terms of the proposal.
“These are recurring expenses that we have to cover next year,” he said.
“This takes us out of having to use the General Fund balance this year that would force an automatic tax increase next year. Two years from now, hopefully we’ve got a little blue sky.”
Auditor Charles Steagall said it’s a matter of the county’s trying to live within its means. “The main thing you’ve done as a result (of the agreement) is to protect the bond rating, because you are bound to have to issue additional bonds in the future.”
Commissioner Mark Ferguson asked if the schools will begin next year with a shortfall in their budget if the county does not commit to the additional $1.2 million for buses and textbooks.
Dykes said a small pocket and sales and business taxes will keep the system solvent, but it will be imperative to receive the money from the county as soon as the year starts.
“The $1.665 is what we’re (recommending) committing to,” Eldridge said. “Mr. Dykes has identified and made us aware of additional costs, and given us a year’s head start to figure it out.”
Ferguson said the county should deal with its issues now. “Let’s not kick our obligations down the road,” he said.
Eldridge explained the sharing process with the city schools must be considered. If the county covered the $1.6 million deficit, an equal amount would have to be given to the city schools. “The total would be $3,012,000,” he said.
If the school system funds the deficit, it is not required to pay anything to the city schools.This is a savings for the county in the current year with no annual increase in the maintenance of effort funds to the schools.
“The key is looking ahead and anticipating needs so we can plan for them,” Eldridge said.
“We have a balanced budget, but the challenges are not behind us by any stretch.”
Among these challenges were comments made by many office holders who were unhappy with the final cuts to their budgets.
They said members of the Budget Committee should not be surprised to receive requests for additional funds during the upcoming year.
“The intent was not to impact services in any way,” Eldridge said.
“There is complete flexibility in transferring from one (budget) line to another if you find savings in one area and spend more in another.”
Commissioner Mitch Meredith reminded the office holders they received a 3 percent raise with no tax increase. “I hope as the year goes on that’s not forgotten,” he said.