County school board labors over half million dollar deficit

By Julie Fann
star staff

Programs or personnel? Carter County School Board members on Tuesday held a grueling budget workshop to determine how to balance a budget that includes an exact deficit of $505,211 before meeting with the Carter County Finance Committee on Thursday.
   Over the past two months, members of the Carter County Schools Finance Committee have discussed issues the system faces, mainly the county's need to match with local funds nearly six percent, or $77,000, of $1.3 million the state could be awarding the county to raise teacher salaries to the minimum $37,000 proposed by Gov. Phil Bredesen.
   Various legislation has thrown a wrench in the finalization of the state's budget, which has county school board members struggling.
   "Everybody's telling us it's a done deal, but the governor's not signed the paperwork yet saying we're going to get 1.3 (million) to give these teacher's a raise, which will in turn be the biggest boost to our local economy of anything coming and going. This teacher's raise is the biggest shot in the arm our county's going to get as far as economically, and we don't have anything signed saying, 'It's yours. It's on the way'," Carter County School Board member Chuck Madgett said.
   Total revenue for the proposed budget, according to Finance Director Jerome Kitchens, is $30,881,700 while expenses total $31,386,911. Kitchens divided proposed areas for cuts into two sections - programs and personnel.
   Cuts to programs would include $50,000 for Special Education, money that could be saved since two students will soon be leaving the program, according to Kitchens. It would also include a $50,000 cut in technology, a $100,000 cut in the Capital Outlay budget, a $50,000 cut in transportation, and a $50,000 cut in the maintenance budget. Even with those cuts, the school system would still be left with a $200,000 deficit.
   "I swear boys, I cannot stand down here and vote for a budget every time that cuts programs, and we do it every year and yet we won't go and ask for the money we need. I just hate it ... I just hate to see us go backward, and that's exactly where we're going. The thing is, the kids are the ones that's going to suffer," said Steve Chambers, school board member.
   Proposed transportation cuts would involve purchasing four new buses for the system instead of the usual five. Superintendent Dallas Williams said the system could possibly even afford to eliminate the purchase of two new buses.
   "The thing of it is, we have 66 buses, and depending on where they have to run, you don't want to put a bus on one of these mountain roads in a slick situation up there, and it not be safe. That's the thing that we have to look at," Williams said.
   County schools also face a 15 percent increase in medical insurance premiums and is considering turning insurance over to COBRA to cope with cost. For the past three years, the Average Daily Membership (ADM) for the county school system has been down by 300 to 400 students, lowering the amount of funding provided by the state.
   Because 80 percent of the system's budget consists of personnel and benefits, the board is faced with considering the possibility of removing professional and/or paraprofessional positions.
   Paraprofessionals receive an annual salary of $15,290. Professional personnel with a bachelor's degree and one year of experience receive $34,840 annually. Assistant Superintendent Pat Hicks said three professionals have turned in retirement papers. Retired positions include a speech therapist, an elementary teacher, and a half time position.
   The school board will meet Thursday at 4 p.m. to approve a proposed budget to be reviewed by the county commission Thursday at 6 p.m.