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Board eyes nearly $25 mil budget hike

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Increases totaling more than $24.8 million in the Rutherford County Schools preliminary budget include almost $16 million for growth needs and only $2.9 million for required improvement and changes. And nearly $13.5 million of the new budget will go to hire 106.5 new certified personnel and a 3 percent across-the-board raise for teachers.

Part of the growth will be the new Rocky Fork Middle School scheduled to open this fall - where the board is planning to hire 26 new teachers for a total cost of more than $1.6 million.

But Director of Schools Don Odom pointed out the growth is countywide. In addition to the Rocky Fork faculty, the board plans to hire 38 teachers for "growth instructional positions" to handle 3 percent enrollment growth, at a cost of nearly $2.4 million.

Cash flow from new arrivals

One of the funding problems, Odom explained to the board, is that while students enter school as soon as the family moves into their new home, the property taxes on that home aren't due until the following year.

State growth funds are also a year behind - which makes life difficult for systems that are experiencing rapid growth like Rutherford is, Odom added.

Another piece of the problem is that state funding is based on student-teacher ratios, which the state figures on system totals - while the county has to hire teachers based on per-school ratios.

That means if 10 schools are over the limit by one or two students, each school has to have another teacher, but state funds are based on the 20 or so children totaled together. The state only pays for one teacher while the county has to hire 10.

English learners, STEM

Additionally, the state has increased the student-teacher ratio required for students learning English as a new language. Formerly, the required ratio was one teacher per 40 students, but now the ratio is 1-35.

The Rutherford board will have to hire five English learner teachers to meet the new standards, but Gov. Bill Haslam's budget does increase funding for the requirement.

STEM education in science and math also will be given a boost by the hiring of five new STEM teachers at county middle schools for a total cost of $307,500.

Odom also pointed out this is a proposed budget and could change when revenue figures become available. "We have no estimates yet on sales tax, property tax or state and federal funds," he said.

The director of schools did note, however, that sales taxes are up about 8 percent over last year and property taxes should also increase.

'Costs will be covered'

Assistant Superintendent for Budget and Finance Jeff Sandvig also reassured the board that there should be enough revenue to cover costs.

"We should have money left," he said. "Revenues will cover expenses, and some should go back into the fund balance."

The board members also discussed possible changes to the classified staff in terms of step raises and promotions. Board Member Lisa Moore, also a member of the Classified Salary Committee, said the committee is recommending standardized steps for all classified employees.

She said they also will discuss higher pay for special education educational assistants and those with a college degree, plus an incentive to help keep part-time and nine-month employees.

Board Member Jim Estes also requested an evaluation of principals' and assistant principals' salaries to see how Rutherford County is aligned with other nearby counties.

Teacher attendance rate?

In other action, Board Chair Jeff Jordan led off a discussion of how to improve the teacher attendance rate, since the State Department of Education has indicated it may be checking attendance rates in some schools.

Currently, student average daily attendance is at about 94 percent, while teachers are at 88 percent.

Board Member Aaron B. Holladay expressed concern, saying, "When we expect our students to attend 94, 96, 98 percent of the time, and our teachers are at 88 percent, something is not right."

He also asked if the board could possibly offer a bonus across the board if teacher attendance went to 90 percent next year. But Board Secretary Joyce Michaels said when bonuses were tried before, they only worked for one year. The second year, attendance went back down.

One possible reason for lower attendance is that state and federal law requires teachers to be given a certain number of paid leave days, which add up to more than 10 percent if they are used.

Board Member Terry Hodge pointed out that if teachers have earned days, that should be no problem - but if they're taking days they haven't earned, he's concerned. Each teacher earns 10 sick days per year and two personal days.

Commissioners fund construction, 19-0

Assistant Superintendent for Engineering and Construction Gary Clardy also returned after attending the county commission meeting to inform the board that all the requested construction has been funded.

Construction at Siegel High and Oakland Middle School can start, and so can work at La Vergne Middle and Roy Waldron Elementary. The funding passed 19-0, with two commissioners absent.

"A big 'thank you' goes out to the commission," Jordan responded.

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