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School safety tops Johnson City budget talks

May 21st, 2013 9:06 am by Gary B. Gray

School safety tops Johnson City budget talks

Johnson City’s 2014 fiscal budget, estimated at about $210 million, is filled with numbers, estimates, projections and percentages, but the glaring human side of this particular spending plan emerged in a lengthy meeting Monday night when the safety, health and well-being of the students in its school system moved to the forefront.

It began with Columbine. And Sandy Hook drove home the message: Listen and act on the front end, and tragedy can be curtailed. It’s now become part of the national concern and conversation. Johnson City was the first in Tennessee to see its schools benefit from a federally funded program aimed at heading off potential problems. 

At least two full hours were spent on the topic of the school system’s request to the city for roughly $800,000 to refuel financing, at least for next year, of the federal HEROES Grant. Unless commissioners can find a way to pick up the tab for next year, the school system will lose a school messenger, mental health services and several additional positions.

At the end of the night, it was decided that Richard Bales, superintendent of schools, will be contacted and that several additional workshops would be held next week to examine alternative ways of providing this service.

“This is really what I would call a ‘demonstration grant,’ ” Greg Wallace, Johnson City School System HEROES Program director, told commissioners and city staff Monday night. “No one was under any illusion this would be an ongoing grant. I do not know what our schools would do without these employees. Three suicides have been directly averted under this program.”

The grant has paid for case managers and counselors from Frontier Health to be at schools during times when experienced intervention can be deployed, and it, too, will be asked to provide representatives to consider options.

“So can they utilize case workers and counselors from Mountain States Health Alliance or the health department?” asked Commissioner David Tomita. “If we can put some private-sector sensibility into it, maybe we can bring that cost down.”

Commissioners last week approved the police department’s submittal of an application for a COPS Hiring Program grant. If awarded, the grant would fund four additional school resource officers who would join the two who now rotate between the school system’s elementary schools. The grant term for this program is three years, but the Frontier Health employees stationed at schools lose those jobs June 30. 

Commissioner Jeff Banyas asked if there was a way to work out a billing system with the organization’s employees.

“If you’re doing (in-school counseling), do you still think you need SROs in every school?” he asked Wallace.

“The two go hand-in-hand,” Wallace answered. “The question is, how do we meet those needs?” 

The total estimated school budget for next year is about $68 million.

On the city’s side, the budget is balanced and nothing is causing any major blips on the radar.

The 2014 general fund includes about $55.3 million for operations, about 2.5 percent more than the current year. Roughly $265,000 is budgeted for raises, which will come in the form of 1 percent merit increases.

Health insurance premiums have gone up 10 percent.

The city expects to end 2014 with a $14.3 million fund balance, of which about $2.6 million will be used to pay for equipment, capital projects and resurfacing. Special appropriations will remain at close to the same level as this year at about $368,000, but this is a category that likely will diminish over the next few years. Commissioners agreed last year to begin cutting these amounts.

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