Ward discussed some decades-old chronic problems in the school system, such as low pay for both teachers and non-teachers and the declining enrollment as the county’s population declines as parents move families after taking jobs outside of the county.
Ward also briefed the committee on the school system’s efforts to obey the new state law requiring schools to display the “In God We Trust” national motto while reconciling it with the permanent U.S. District Court injunction the school system is under to maintain the separation of church and state during school hours.
Ward said the state attorney general has declined to issue an opinion on conflicting mandates the school system is under. He said the attorney general declined to give an opinion because of the potential he could be a witness if the school system did wind up back in federal court because of the conflict.
Ward appeared more confident than he was during the September Board of Education meeting that the new law might not be in conflict with the permanent injunction. He said the “In God We Trust” motto “has been tried in a lot of states and it has been upheld in every case.”
But Ward told the committee that he will continue to work to prevent the conflict between state and federal mandates from causing the county to end up in federal court. He said one of his responsibilities as director of schools “is to keep us out of court.”
The rest of Ward’s discussion on the county school system’s difficult financial position made it clear why he does not want to spend school funds in court battles.
“We are not in a sustainable position in where we are going,” Ward warned. He said the current budget was only balanced by taking $250,000 from the school fund balance.
Not only is the school system starting with that hole, but he identified other financial difficulties like constantly rising medical insurance premiums and the continuing loss of state funding from the Basic Education Program because student enrollment is declining.
Ward said since the start of the millennium, the school system’s enrollment has declined by 1,300 students. He said that represents a loss of $9 million to the schools.
Normally, when enrollment falls, a school system can make up for less state funding by cutting teaching positions, since less teachers would be needed for less students. That doesn’t always work for school systems like Carter County, which have several high schools.
Another problem Ward identified was low pay for both employees in teaching positions and non-teaching positions.
Ward gave an example of a janitor who has been a good and faithful employee for 30 years and was being paid $9.40 per hour. He said a janitor who had just been hired was given a starting salary of $9.40 per hour.
“I think that is an injustice,” Ward told the committee.
Ward said teachers are also extremely underpaid. He said a teacher recently left Carter County for the Bristol Tennessee School System and realized a $16,000 pay increase. He said teachers can merely “cross the river” going from the Carter County system to the Elizabethton City School System and obtain $7,000 to $8,000 more a year. One teacher who recently did that told Ward that was enough to make his monthly mortgage payment.
Ward had one very bright spot in his gloomy presentation. He told the new committee members that when the County Commission made it possible for a successful referendum to designate a half-cent of sales tax proceeds to be earmarked for school capital projects, there has not been a single case of the school system going to the commission for roofing projects and school bus purchases. The county’s debt service no longer includes any debt for school expenditures.
Ward said the half-cent sales tax will bring in $800,000 to the school system this year, and with the improving economy, Ward hopes it will be even more.