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BOE dreams dashed at budget meeting


Staff Writer

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After two Washington County Board of Education budget meetings, Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton—along with interim finance director Jerry Whitaker and incoming finance director Brad Hale—sat at the conference table across from the Washington County Commission Budget Committee in hopes of getting closer to finalizing the school board’s budget. But the budget discussion looks to be far from over as the budget committee voted to send the budget back to Halliburton and the nine-member school board.

“We had a big, lofty dream” Halliburton said at the April 27 meeting just before she presented the board’s budget that is $1.4 million out of balance. “And we realize that this commission has been so good to us already. We wanted to show our support so we tried to make cuts before the cuts. The board and I, along with help from our finance directors, made several cuts before this.”

The budget includes the addition of four academic coaches, a driver’s education instructor at Daniel Boone High School, a special projects manager (with an emphasis on grant writing), ASPIRE testing to aid students prior to ACT testing, two web-based education programs for school and at-home use, literacy levels readers, a continuance of professional development with Rutherford Learning Group and graduation funds for both high schools.

The budget also includes four maintenance of effort items (or items that are must-haves due to year-to-year funding requirements). Those items are two special education teachers, one SPED instructional aide, one part-time English Second Language instructor and a five-percent increase in electrical services.

In trying to come up with a way to balance the budget, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge weighed the upcoming facilities projects.

“I’ve got a question for the board; that $8 million athletic complex at Boones Creek appears to me to be a deal killer the way I’ve heard it,” Eldridge said. “If that complex is not part of the deal, then you don’t want that facility. You don’t want that school.

“I guess my question is, in the order of priorities, what’s more important? Balancing this budget or building an $8 million athletic complex? Because that money can help offset. It won’t make this deficit go away, but it can help offset this deficit. And I’d really like to hear from the board of education what your thoughts are in that regard.”

Eldridge said the pennies that fund those capital dollars for the athletic complex could also be pennies that fund operation expenditures. Halliburton said the school board could discuss that at their upcoming May 4 meeting.

Meanwhile, BOE chairman Jack Leonard said the board members were under the impression the athletic complex was going to be built at the same time as the Boones Creek school.

“I felt like I was threatened right then, mister mayor when you said, ‘Do you want to want your athletics or do you want to balance the budget?’ And that really upsets me because I extended my hand to you in cooperation and I have worked with you and worked with you,” Leonard said. “For this to come forward like that, that’s not fair.”

Commissioner and budget committee chairman Joe Grandy said he would like to find a way to implement the board’s budget items but that there will be no new revenue to do so.

“Mrs. Halliburton is showing you what our needs are and what she feels like will move our system forward,” Leonard said. “And we asked her to do that because we want to move our system forward. That’s what you’ve been wanting. And that’s what I’ve been wanting. That’s why I wanted to choose Mrs. Halliburton, because I thought she had new ideas to move us forward. And so she has brought those to you and we were support of that.

“You are our funding body. You have to tell us exactly what we have to do to be able to meet our needs.”

In addition to weighing facility priorities, Eldridge also considered the declining number of Washington County students a factor in the budget discussion.

“In Washington County, for a long time, we’ve made bricks and mortar the priority. I think those days are over,” Eldridge said. “There is not enough money to do both. And we’re looking at growth in revenue that doesn’t come close to offsetting the expenditures in any year. And quite frankly, from what I’m seeing, it never will again. And as long as we’ve got a school system that is shrinking in enrollment, we need to start to understand how we’re going to spend less and the actual budget begin to decrease as a result to the declining enrollment.”

Whitaker said at the board’s previous budget meeting that the county school system lost 155 students last year that resulted in a loss of $560,000 in state basic education program funding.

“We can’t sustain classrooms with 12 kids in them any longer. And I understand that,” Halliburton said when asked how the decline in students has affected the school system’s staff headcount. “Our plan is to max out our class numbers, given the dire situation of enrollment numbers.”

Halliburton said that plan is not reflected in the costs in the budget. She also said the decision to cut instructional aides has not yet been made.

The budget committee voted to send the budget back to the school board. The board’s next meeting will be on Thursday, May 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Washington County Department of Education’s central office at 405 W College St. in Jonesborough.