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Washington County’s funding toward education sparks discussion

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Staff Writer

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Just before Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes presented the budget committee with the next fiscal year budget for the Washington County school system, he provided a little more information about the county’s funding of their school system.

The numbers showed that Washington County students have a per pupil expenditure of $8,500.90, $912.80 less than the state average, which is $9,413.70. But it is also much lower than surrounding school systems like Greeneville ($10,862.50) and Johnson County ($10,449.20.)

Johnson City’s per pupil expenditure is $9,434.30, while Sullivan County — who many leaders consider to be a mirroring county — has a per pupil expenditure of $9,189.90.PER PUPIL EXP

“I just tried to use a different strategy to show them that there is just more to it than saying we are caught in a vacuum,” Dykes said. “They haven’t made that commitment to education that is similar to counties that are socio-economically similar have made.”

The documents presented said that Washington County uses just over 40 percent of their property tax or $0.7956 of $1.9798 towards education. He used Blount County, who uses just under 65 percent ($1.5900 of $2.47) towards education. Sullivan County uses just under 61 percent of their property tax toward education with $1.4708 of their $2.5754 property tax rate.

The 40 percent was called into question by Budget committee chairman Joe Grandy and later by Eldridge, who told the Herald and Tribune that as much as 56 percent of Washington County’s property tax rate goes toward education when you add in construction.

“They have to be added together, because that is your investment in schools, if you’re investing in a school building or if you are investing in a school teacher you’re still using taxpayers money and investing in the schools,” Eldridge said. “I don’t know why people don’t get that. The taxpayer is still having to pay the bill.”

However, Dykes refuted that all of the 2007 bond money that is being factored into that number is going to the school.

“You have to be real careful when you start throwing in those additional pennies like they were talking about, to pay for the current education bond. Just pulling a number from the air can be a little misleading,” Dykes said. “Because some of that bond actually went into the general fund initially and that initial tax increase, back in 07-08, and some of those pennies went into construct the new justice center, some of those pennies went to Johnson City.

“Regardless, I think they threw in 20 pennies (at the meeting) and that would bring the percentage to around 50 percent and that is still significantly lower than the other two — Blount and Sullivan.”

According to the 2015 System Profile TDOE Report Card, Washington County funds their system locally at 43.9 percent, while 46.49 percent comes from state funding and 9.64 percent is provided by the federal government.

That same system profile shows that Washington County is eighth in local funding when looking at the top 20 counties in size. The only non-consolidated schools are Williamson County and Sullivan County.

“If you look at the local funding component, which is what the County Commission appropriates, Washington County — is on a per pupil basis — one of the highest funded county systems in the state,” Eldridge said. “When you are looking at per pupil expenditure, you have to realize that there are three components, only one of which we control. The three components are local, state and federal funding.”

Washington County is actually at a unique disadvantage when it comes to funding their schools, according to Eldridge.

Eldridge said the county level fiscal capacity model that is used to calculate allocation of the state’s Basic Education Fund. Because of that model, “Washington County is getting a smaller share of the state BEP than it should receive. Because that model is based on what is called county level fiscal capacity.”

He explains that as being sales tax base, property tax base and incomes county wide.

“It is assumed that those are all factors that influence the local ability to pay for education,” Eldridge said. “That is an accurate assumption, however, in Washington County, we are an outlier for this reason. Johnson City is a sales tax generating machine.”

Only 26 percent of that sales tax is available to the county school system, the other 74 percent is strictly for use toward the city school system.

“But the fiscal capacity model assumes that is all available to the county school system,” Eldridge said. “So this is what happens, Washington County’s ability to fund education is overstated, because of Johnson City’s sales tax collection. However, Johnson City’s ability to fund education is understated, because there numbers get factored in to county numbers and we don’t have sales tax collections in the county, to speak of.”

That is due to the lack of big businesses in the county. That allows Johnson City an extra $13-14 million that isn’t available to the Washington County system.

Regardless of tat, the Washington County school budget has not kept up with inflation and the budget that the presented in June of 2015 of $61,675,596 is actually a decrease from the June 2014 budget.

Dykes went on to present the schools FY 2016-2017 budget to the committee, which came in $816,685 out of balance. That figure included the fact that the Washington County Board of Education added $1 million from their fund balance.