Amid frustration over declining state funding, Rutherford County commissioners approved a $306.6 million County Schools budget for fiscal 2015 after educators cut their original request by $8 million.
The County Commission’s budget and health and education committees recommended funding last week in separate meetings. The moves came even though Finance Director Lisa Nolen said money will have to be shifted in the county’s debt service fund to avoid increasing property taxes to pay for the school system’s budget plan.
“This is painful,” Nolen said,” noting the commission could “squeeze by” this year without a tax increase but is setting itself up for bigger problems in fiscal 2016.
The current property tax rate is $2.5652 per $100 of assessed value, and that will decrease to $2.4968 because of county-wide reappraisals that must be revenue neutral.
The school system will move forward with a $12.8 million budget shortfall that must be paid for out of the county’s fund balance, though that is $3.5 million less than the previous budget plan required.
In a meeting between the County School Board and county commissioners, County Schools Director Don Odom pointed out that the student enrollment is expected to increase by 2.9 percent, some 1,400 students, even though the system’s budget is going up only 2.4 percent. The county system has 41,920 students.
Odom noted that the state budget cut Basic Education Program (BEP) growth funds from $27 million this year to $15 million in fiscal 2015. That could decrease to $10 million in fiscal 2016 because $5 million of that amount is non-recurring, he said.
“This will be devastating if Rutherford County continues to grow,” Odom said.
Over the last two 10-year periods, the system averaged 4 percent growth annually, according to assistant superintendent Jeff Sandvig.
BEP, the state formula to help fund local school systems, generates enough money for 107.4 certified supervisor or system-wide positions, but Rutherford County has only 50.6 in its budget, Odom told commissioners.
Furthermore, BEP provides money for 2,514 certified teaching positions, but Rutherford has 2,951 certified positions to meet class-size mandates and other state requirements as well as to offer “high-quality” instruction, according to Odom.
Pay increases for longevity are estimated to total $1.25 million to $1.5 million, Sandvig told commissioners.
The school system initially put money in the budget to give teachers a 2 percent pay raise that would match a pay increase promised by Gov. Bill Haslam. But when the governor removed that from his budget, the school system followed, Odom said.
County Commissioner Doug Shafer said during the Tuesday meeting the school system should consider “going to court” to seek equitable funding from the state to help pay for growth, similar to legal action small school systems took in the 1990s to obtain more state funds.
School Board Chairman Terry Hodge told commissioners he thinks the state education department is trying to shift the burden of school funding to the local level and make it harder for systems to operate.
“I personally believe they’re trying to get rid of public education,” Hodge said. He later added that moves at the state level to provide student vouchers for private schools and to create charter schools with public money are part of that effort.
County Commissioner Jeff Jordan, who chairs the health and education committee, pointed out that during the commission’s annual meeting with state legislators, the Rutherford County delegation said it would send the county the same amount of BEP money it did the previous year.
Commission budget and education committees also voted last week to:
• Approve the school system’s cafeteria fund budget, using $703,292 from its fund balance to pay for $18.3 million in expenditures.
• Approve $2.3 million capital projects for schools, using $2.3 million in property tax revenue and $33,548 from the fund balance. Work will be done primarily on roofs for five schools and the HVAC system at Blackman Middle.
• Table a resolution to pay for capital projects with five cents from the property tax rate. In 2007-08, the commission moved a nickel into the school system budget to pay for capital projects, but that amount has dropped to 4.51 cents, according to school officials.
• Approve the purchase of 5.5 acres adjoining Whitworth-Buchanan Middle School from the Maples Family Partnership for a sixth-grade annex at $70,000 per acre. The board will pay $2,500 in surveying costs.