Johnson City School Board member Thomas Hager motions during a discussion Tuesday that resulted in $1.6 million cut from the district's budget. (Nathan Baker/Johnson City Press)
Johnson City school officials cut $11,025 per minute from the district’s budget in a marathon two-and-a-half-hour meeting Tuesday morning, but were still unable to balance the $2.8 million deficit remaining before the start of the 2014-15 school year.
Handed the deficit by Johnson City commissioners, who voted last week to fund $500,000 of the school system’s overrun on the second reading of the municipality’s budget, the members of the Board of Education slashed textbooks, school safety programming, technology upgrades and a handful of positions to reach the $1.7 million in cuts, but stopped short of eliminating all athletic coaching positions and elementary art programming.
Many board members were critical of the city’s governing body, leaders they said triggered austerity policies on their fears of the political ramifications of increasing the property tax rate.
“I think where the City Commission is on this tax increase is ridiculous,” Richard Manahan said. “Any cut we take is their responsibility as far as I’m concerned. If you look at our tax rate compared to other cities, I have to give the other cities credit for supporting not only schools, but the city, as well as the whole community. The school system is one of the biggest economic development operations in this city, as well as the city and its infrastructure, and here we are, playing nickel and dime, so people can move ahead in their political gains, whatever that is, so we don’t have a tax increase.”
To find the millions of dollars needed to bridge the gap, district Finance Director Pam Cox furnished the board members with a list of $4 million of district expenses from which to carve out savings.
The board waded through the list line-by-line, cutting math and social studies textbooks, contract positions, library computers and two activity buses.
The HEROES Initiative, a collaboration between the schools, the Johnson City Police Department, Johnson City Juvenile Court and Frontier Health designed to promote a safe, drug-free learning environment, lost $175,000 for social worker and support staff positions.
In the budget meeting, five positions, including a teacher evaluation assistant, one full-time teaching position at Science Hill High School and a systemwide technology position were dropped, but the board members couldn’t reach the level of funding mandated by the commission.
When the talk turned to erasing athletic coaching supplements — approximately 100 coaching jobs — and the art or music programs at the district’s eight elementary schools, discussion stalled.
“Folks, these are some big categories that are out there,” member Tim Belisle said before making a motion to cut all coaching and band supplements. “My whole goal coming in was to stay as far away from the classroom as possible. We touched the classroom with a few of our things, and I agree with those, but eliminating the athletic and coaching and academic supplements, those stay as far away from our classrooms as any of the other things on our list.”
But the majority of the board couldn’t stomach an action that could have eliminated all school sports.
“I have some issues with eliminating all athletics, I think we need to understand how far that reaches,” board Chairwoman Kathy Hall said. “Think of the students that are getting scholarships for college for athletic performance, think of what it does for a high school to root for a team. I think it goes deeper than just eliminating athletic programs. I absolutely agree with you about keeping things as far from the classroom as possible, but I would argue that this would gut our high school.”
Science Hill High School Principal Melanie Riden-Bacon made an emotional plea to the members to leave the coaching money in the district’s budget.
“When you eliminate marching band, and you eliminate athletics, and you eliminate all these things that these high schools students have to fill their lives with, you have truly destroyed that school,” the principal said. “I know it’s not your choice, and I know it’s hard, but I’d like to get that out there that I am totally opposed to eliminating all these things that, though they don’t look like they directly affect the classroom, they do.”
Belisle’s motion to cut the athletics funding, which would have saved the district $556,000, failed 4-3, the thinnest margin of the morning.
The board did cut seventh- and ninth-grade athletics to save $30,000. Athletes in seventh grade will try out for the eighth-grade sports, acting as a junior varsity team, and ninth-graders will try out for the junior varsity high school team if the reductions hold.
Another proposal to eliminate $488,000 from the budget by way of cutting an art of music teacher position at all eight elementary schools was likewise not palatable to the board.
With their provided list of cuts exhausted, the board voted to send the remainder, a $1.1 million deficit, back to the commission for action, possibly at a Friday meeting to discuss the city budget.
Without singling them out by name, Board of Education member Tom Hager expressed his frustration with Clayton Stout, Jeff Banyas and David Tomita, the three city commissioners who voted to approve the current iteration of Johnson City’s budget.
“What makes it even harder for me to understand is the three guys who grew up here, they went to Science Hill High School, and got a terrific education, they’ve put us in this predicament, and there’s no need for it,” he said. “It can be managed very easily. I’m beyond words when it comes to those three people.”
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Members of the Johnson City Board of Education met this morning to make some difficult decisions on what to cut from the budget to make up for a multi-million-dollar budget deficit.
A 4-3 vote saved system-wide sports from being cut, however the board did vote to axe sports in grades 7 and 9. They left the eighth-grade sports intact to feed high school teams.
They are looking at individual sports and Title IX requirements. Members noted that eliminating sports programs could send students to other schools, a problem since the system is already dealing with recruitment worries.
"If it hadn't have been for athletics, I wouldn't have finished high school," pointed out member Richard Manahan, who also expressed displeasure with the Johnson City Commission for not increasing taxes to help fund the schools.
Other cuts include four instructional positions, a tech position and $10,000 for parks and recreation support. Another $175,000 was cut from the system's HEROES program while $273,100 was cut for social studies textbooks.
With thousands more to make up, the board was considering cutting art or music in elementary schools, academic coaches, Chinese at North Side and other possible programming.
Keep checking JohnsonCityPress.com for more on this developing story. Follow Press reporter Nathan Baker on Twitter at @jcpressbaker for live tweeting from this morning's meeting.