The Knox County Schools Budget Is Lamentable

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

Much of the deliberation at the school board’s initial meeting on a budget for the year ahead revolved around allocation of a presumed $10 million in additional funding for teacher compensation.

Superintendent Jim McIntyre recommended applying all of the money to a 4 percent pay raise for all teachers while dispensing with a continuation of the $3.2 million in performance bonuses that have been paid in each of the past two years to teachers with superior evaluations.

But several board members protested that it would be unfair to deny the bonuses to teachers who’ve been counting on them and worked hard to earn them. Board member Terry Hill termed the denial “totally unacceptable” and went on to assert that the roughly half of the school system’s 8,000 employees who aren’t certified teachers also deserve a pay raise.

What was strangely missing from the discussion was any mention of the fact that the budget as presented didn’t provide a source of funding for anything like $10 million for any combination of the above. Indeed, the only funding identified in the budget for raises was the $4.4 million from the state that represents its share of the 4 percent average teacher salary increase that Gov. Bill Haslam has recommended. But the only mention of this shortfall in McIntyre’s proposed budget was an obscure footnote stating. “Amount of $5,639,000 reflects the remainder needed to grant a 4% average salary increase to certified employees.”

Former board chair Lynne Fugate offered a way out of the dilemma when she opined that, “We do a budget based on expenses we believe are needed. It’s up to our funding body {County Commission} to decide on revenues. If we want to do APEX (the performance bonuses} and a 4 percent pay raise then we as a board can do that. It’s our budget.”

Last year, when weak state revenues caused Haslam to drop a proposed 2 percent teacher pay raise, the school board persisted in recommending it and got absolutely nowhere with County Mayor Tim Burchett and County Commission. And that was just déjà vu all over again in relation to the board’s repeated attempts to get anything more than the revenue growth derived from the school system’s dedicated portion of local property and sales taxes plus state funding under the BEP.

This year both state and local sales tax growth has been strong, exceeding 6 percent. That robust growth, in turn, has provided a higher base for next fiscal year’s revenue projections. That’s where Haslam found the $100 million to cover the state’s share of a 4 percent raise statewide. And in the school board’s case, an $8.5 million increase in assumed local tax revenues is by far the largest in many years.

Under these circumstances, it’s downright shameful if the local share of the pay raise doesn’t get funded. A stumbling block is that the revenue increase is being offset in large part by reductions in funding that can no longer be derived from budgetary artifices that the school system has employed for the past two years.

The biggest of these is the use of fund balance reserves to cover operating expenses.

A severe hailstorm in 2011 produced a temporary spike in sales taxes on repairs that boosted these funds, but they’ve now been drawn down to near the minimum that the state requires.

I’d love to be proven wrong, but I can’t conceive of our pinchpenny county mayor coming up with any more money for schools. I can virtually hear him now proclaiming that an $8.5 million revenue increase is surely enough to meet their needs.

The school board’s one other recourse is to seek more money from the state. Several board members have joined forces with counterparts in Davidson, Hamilton, and Shelby counties in forming a Coalition of Large School Districts (CLASS) that’s got lawyers looking at filing suit to prove their state funding is inadequate. But unlike the successful suit in the 1990s by small school systems to redress inequities in their funding, inadequacy is much harder to prove, at least in court. So any such CLASS action is likely to be a windmill-tilting exercise. (Actually, Hamilton and surrounding counties have already brought such a suit—a move that McIntyre has termed “unfortunate.”)

The one real hope I see for getting our schools more adequately funded over time is to elect local officials, starting with a county mayor, who will champion public education. When Burchett blessedly gets term-limited in 2018, Knox County will have gone 19 years without a property tax increase. By contrast, there were two under Tommy Schumpert in the late 1990s and both a property and a sales increase under his predecessor, Dwight Kessel.

The Knoxville Mercury, as a not-for-profit, is precluded from endorsing candidates for public office. So what I’m about to say should not be construed as one. But what this community most needs is for respected leaders with a passion for education, such as a Randy Boyd or a Jamie Woodson, to step forward as candidates for the office that has more to do than any other with how our schools get funded.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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