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Schools budget still short by $1 million

The stifling heat of summer moved inside on Friday as Washington County budget committee members sweated over how to find more money for the county’s school system.
Earlier in the week, the school board approved major cuts to athletics and several other departments.
The county school system initially was in the hole $1.8 million, however the commission was able to fund an additional $564,500 last month to leave the schools’ deficit at $1.3 million as of Friday morning.
On Aug. 3, members of the Board of Education approved recommendations by Dykes to make cuts to seven different areas in order to supply the county commission with a balanced budget. (See Page 3A for budget coverage from the school board meeting.)
“The only place to pull money from were unmandated areas,” Dykes told the budget committee on Friday, explaining the proposed cuts to coaching supplements, athletic directors, groundskeepers, instructional assistants, buses, nurses and textbooks. “Those programs, or a recombination of those programs, will be affected soon.”
Dykes requested an additional $500,000 from the county, saying it would “make a huge difference in many of those areas.”
Charles Steagall, the county’s accountant and CPA, told commissioners their options were either to increase the tax rate or shift the tax rate — in other words, move money from the general fund to the schools’ fund.
“When you have negative spending in the general fund, somewhere along the way you are going to have to make it up,” Steagall warned. “And I would think if you did that then that would put the burden on the county commission to come up with a plan to submit to the state and bonding agencies on how you anticipate correcting this in the future.”
County Mayor-Elect Dan Eldridge made it clear that raising taxes was not an option.
“The big issue – the elephant in the room – is that we can’t raise taxes,” Eldridge said. “We absolutely cannot raise taxes.”
With that in mind, Commissioner Pete Speropulos began brainstorming possible ways to cut costs in the general fund to give back to the schools.
“Education is, no doubt, going to have to be the top priority in this county and we’re going to have to figure out a way to get this money,” Speropulos said. “We’re going to have to start looking at everything little. All those little things are going to make up the big $1.8 million.”
Speropulos suggested making changes to the healthcare offered to county employees, forcing them to take one personal day a month without pay, or cutting the number of paid holidays.
The committee also discussed the county taking over care of the 34 grounds at the schools and ownership of the buses to reduce the amount of money having to be shared with Johnson City.
“These are things I would want to spend some time studying,” Eldridge said, discouraging an immediate decision. “Let’s make sure we understand all of the implications.”
The committee took a 25-minute “bathroom break” in the middle of the meeting and came back to the table to continue the discussion.
Eldridge told Dykes the commission was behind “comimitted to figuring out how to make this thing work long-term,” but added, “Today, I just want to see how to get past this one issue.”
Teresa Johnson, a Telford resident with three children – one currently at David Crockett High School and two already out of the school system – pleaded with the committee to find a way to give the schools more money.
“If you don’t take care of these kids… they’re going to be so doggone behind that we’re goint to be the East Tennessee that everyone things we are,” Johnson said. “The biggest investment this county’s got is the kids. Take care of them.”
Shortly thereafter, the budget committee agreed to give the schools additional funding that will equal $254,000.
To do so, the county will have to shift one cent from the general fund to the school fund, which will provide $275,000 – 44 percent of that is required by state law to be given to Johnson City schools.
Additionally, the county will take an estimated $102,000 from extra Tennessee Valley Authority money in the highway department’s budget.
Jaynes requested the money be used to reinstate the coaching supplements to ensure sports at the schools. Dykes said that decision would be up to the school board, but expressed his support for it.
“It would be my recommendation to reimplement them,” Dykes said. “Nothing tops academics in my philosophy, but just as crucial to a child’s development… are the arts and athletics. They are crucial to a well-rounded curriculum.”
The decision to give the schools the additional $254,000 will need approval from the full commission, which meets Aug. 23 at 6 p.m.