During Thursday’s meeting of the Washington County Commission’s Budget Committee, Halliburton presented commissioners with the school’s 2017 funding proposal, a $67.74 million budget lingering some $1.44 million in the red.
With county schools facing flat revenue and decreasing enrollment numbers, commissioners immediately said they had no intent of raising taxes to reach equilibrium, leading to a motion that Halliburton take the budget back to the school board and begin trimming.
“I’ll take all of this back to the board, and we’ll hash through each line item we’ve requested and determine what can be cut as a result of this,” Halliburton said.
The apex of the meeting occurred midway through deliberations as Board of Education Chairman Jack Leonard, who sat in the audience, and Mayor Dan Eldridge got in a small spat.
Leonard said he felt “threatened” after Eldridge made the suggestion the BOE needed to really begin prioritizing needs, even if it came to choosing between a new athletic complex and operational needs.
“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. If that athletic complex is not part of the deal, then you don’t want that facility. You don’t want that school,” Eldridge said.
After Leonard said the board hadn’t shared that feeling with him, Eldridge countered by stating, “That is clearly what I got from those meetings. Is that $8 million athletic complex more important than these needs (on the budget)? Now, I know that we’re talking about two different pots of money. We’re talking about capital dollars and we’re talking about operating dollars, but we use revenue from the tax base to pay for those capital needs.
“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.”
Leonard, with Halliburton’s support, said the board was not aware of an option to choose between suspending or further delaying the sports complex and balancing the budget. He also expressed dismay Eldridge had waited until then to share that information with him.
The tension escalated when Leonard told Eldridge the board had the means to cut athletics entirely, if needed, before abruptly standing up and leaving the meeting.
“I’m very confident the mayor and the chairman of the board (will work this out.),” Halliburton said. “This is not the first time they’ve been at odds with each other and it won’t be the last. They’ve always managed to get back together to start working as a team again.”
Halliburton asked if further delaying the athletic field would assist in balancing the budget, but commissioners agreed it wouldn’t make a significant difference.
For the last seven years, Eldridge said the school budget has been out of balance, and although ends were met in previous years, commissioners were clear that no new money existed to continue that approach.
This year’s budget included spending down the reserve fund to its minimum state-required balance, something Eldridge said he couldn’t support. Leonard said the reserve fund balance had shrunk due to it being used to balance education budgets in previous years.
“In Washington County, for a long time, we’ve made bricks-and-mortar the priority. I think those days are over. There is not enough money to do both. And we’re looking at growth and 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,” Eldridge said.
Eldridge estimated the school system had lost roughly 10 percent of its enrollment the last six or seven years, while the budget has grown during the same period.
“The cost of living will cause the budget to continue to grow,” Leonard pointed out to Eldridge. “The budget is never going to stay the same.”
Eldridge asked if the school system had experienced a staff reduction to match the enrollment drop.
“My thinking is maybe it’s time we start considering how we staff these schools. Recognizing again that next year, we’re going to be back here with the exact same problem,” the mayor said.
During a meeting last week, Interim Finance Director Jerry Whitaker mentioned the school district losing 155 students from its average daily attendance, an enrollment figure used by Tennessee to determine state funding through the Basic Education Program.
Halliburton said teacher salaries and staff wages make up about 75 percent of the budget, with $1.35 million currently allotted toward a 2 percent raise for every employee.
Highlighted at the bottom of the budget was already $1.01 million in cuts and $472,100 in decreased expenses from last year’s budget.
“We tried to make cuts before the (commission’s) cuts,” Halliburton told the committee shortly after presenting the budget. “It’s true we’re out of balance. We have a number of items that we’re still requesting, but we did make an effort to meet it.”
Halliburton acknowledged balancing this year’s budget would be one of the more difficult situations she’s faced since becoming the head of the school system.
The school budget is due in August, she said.
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