School budget stalls, Scheme 6 moves to full commission

Robert Houk • May 9, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Members of the Washington County Budget Committee rejected a proposed $71.8 million budget for county schools on Wednesday, and asked the county’s Board of Education to submit a balanced budget that does not require additional tax dollars.

“We’ve got to make some hard decisions on both sides of the table,” Commissioner Jim Wheeler told school officials during discussion of the proposed budget, which is nearly $3 million more than current spending and calls for a 2% raise for county teachers.

Commissioner Freddie Malone said those tough decisions must go beyond personnel decisions, and should include discussion of the declining student enrollment, the number of schools and the size of classrooms in the county’s system. Director of Schools Bill Flanary said Washington County is indeed seeing a “shrinking” school population.

Even so, he said the school board’s policy has been to keep class sizes small, particularly in kindergarten and the other early grades.

“The bulk of our expense is in the classroom,” Flanary said. “We can’t do anything about our fixed costs. The only way to cut costs is by reducing personnel. That’s the bottom line.”

The director of schools also told the Budget Committee a pay increase for educators is vital for Washington County to attract good teachers. Teachers received no salary increases in the current budget year.

“It’s hard to compete when neighboring schools are giving 2% and 3% raises,” he said.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said limited revenue growth has left the county “struggling” to balance the budget this year, which means it will be “difficult to find additional dollars in the coffers” for schools. 

“We are going to have to figure our how to compact the budget and work within our means,” said Grandy, who also noted the committee would also like to see teachers get a pay raise.

The Budget Committee also voted Wednesday to send the Scheme 6 plan for building a new K-8 school in Jonesborough to the County Commission on May 20, but declined to make a recommendation on the plan. The committee also voted to defer action on the long-delayed purchase of the 15-acre McCoy property adjacent to Jonesborough Elementary until a decision is made on Scheme 6.

Wheeler said funding for Scheme 6 had become a “much bigger issue,” and one the full commission should address. The Board of Education approved the Scheme 6 plan in October, which calls for renovating Jonesborough Middle School and adding about 64,000 square feet to the building. 

Grandy said commissioners have received enough information about Scheme 6 to debate the issue. He pointed to a April 1 workshop when commissioners heard from Mitch Meredith, the county’s finance and administration director, who said Washington County would need to borrow at least $56.2 million to fund the Jonesborough K-8 and other key school capital projects.

Board of Education Chairman Keith Ervin said after the meeting he and other school board members will “have to wait and see” what county commissioners decide later this month.

“I don’t know what else we can do,” he said. “We came in with a plan under the amount they (county officials) said was budgeted, and now they say we don’t have the money.”

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