Local educators concerned about state budget

By Thomas Wilson

Tennessee's public school administrators remain fearful that the state's public education funding -- and possibly, teachers' jobs -- could be going to the dogs.
   The General Assembly's House Finance Committee has spent the week reviewing the proposed Downsizing of Government Services (DOGS) budget plan, which would include approximately $400 million in cuts for K-12 education.
   The plan represents a $3 million cut in funding for Carter County Schools while Elizabethton City Schools would absorb an approximate cut of $1.2 million.
   "With a $13 million system budget, that's a substantial loss for us," said Dr. Judy Blevins, superintendent of Elizabethton City Schools.
   The city's school system employs around 172 teachers, and over 300 people including staff and administrators system wide, Blevins said.
   She stated that if the system faced significant funding cuts, the administration would have to evaluate the faculty structure pertaining to certified and tenured teachers as well as other staff personnel.
   "Our personnel would be the very last thing we would want to cut," she said. "We would look at anywhere else before we would look at cuts in personnel."
   "That $3 million cut translates to about 90 unfilled teaching positions," said Dallas Williams, superintendent of Carter County Schools, which employs 492 personnel including administrators and staff.
   Williams said his system cut $400,000 from last year's budget after insurance premiums for state employees jumped 25 percent.
   "This year, we have been informed that our insurance will increase 22 percent," he said. "That translates into a $700,000 increase without any additional funds."
   He also said the state would have no choice but to relax mandates for student-teacher ratios in classrooms given the possible reductions in the number of teachers.
   "This past year we had to take a close look at our classroom numbers," said Williams. "We had to transfer teachers from one classroom to another."
   Blevins said the city school administrators had spent the week reviewing their budget options if the system faced the worst case scenario.
   "It would take a major overhaul and review of our personnel," she said. "We are still looking at cutting several hundred thousands of dollars."
   Blevins also said the administration had warned teacher and teaching assistant applicants that there were no guarantees that open positions would be filled.
   "We are going forward with the interview process, to be prepared in case the budget does come through," she said, "but all applicants are informed that all positions are contingent on funding."
   The DOGS budget plan proposal is one of a handful of proposals lawmakers are considering to fund state government for the next fiscal year.
   Finance Committee members heard testimony from state Education Commissioner Faye Taylor on Wednesday and from state Board of Regents Chancellor Charles Manning on Thursday.
   House lawmakers have estimated $945 million must be cut from Gov. Don Sundquist's proposed $20 billion budget.
   Despite the state's budget troubles, Blevins said she remained optimistic that legislators would pass a budget less damaging to the public education system.
   The state's fiscal year ends June 30.
   State Finance Administration Commissioner Warren Neel has said the state will likely close $480 million in the red for the current fiscal year.
   "I'm a graduate of a Carter County elementary school and Elizabethton High School," said Rep. Ralph Cole, R-Elizabethton, a Finance Committee member. "It was sad for me to hear Wednesday what was going to happen."
   The state's higher education system had also projected to face $93 million in budget cuts, according to the upstate Republican.
   Cole reiterated his belief that the state's budget battle over new revenue sources pitted lawmakers from the state's wealthier urban areas against rural legislators.
   He also said lawmakers should've realized the potential for massive funding cuts when legislators began debating plans to alter the state's revenue structure four years ago.
   "Anyone with average intelligence should've known where we were headed," said Cole.