County school board exasperated by state budget battle

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Carter County School Board member Steve Chambers has a message for lawmakers in Nashville.
   Set some priorities, and leave K-12 education out of any proposed budget cuts.
   "They're not doing too good a job managing our money," said an irritated Chambers at the board's June meeting on Monday. "Here we are going into the month of July and we still don't know where we're going."
   The Tennessee General Assembly has been locked in a battle of dueling budget plans during the past two months.
   The Downsizing of Government Services (DOGS), or "no new revenue" budget would cost the county school system approximately $3 million, resulting in about 90 teachers' jobs being cut, according to school officials.
   Chambers referenced Tennessee's highly rated highway system in comparison with the state's near bottom-of-the-barrel performance in funding K-12 and higher education.
   "The only thing these good roads are getting us is these big companies getting out of town a little faster," he said, referring to the recent departures of Frank Schaffer Publications and Alcoa's aluminum plant from the county. "It's not fair to the teachers or the kids."
   Board member Bob McClain said that the state's budget delays were a setback in the system's recruiting of teachers for basic subjects math, English, and science.
   "We can't tell them anything because we don't know what we are going to do," said McClain.
   The recently proposed Continuing Adequate Taxes and Services, or CATS, budget would raise an additional $806 million for the next fiscal year.
   That plan would set the state sales tax rate at 8.75 percent, increase business excise tax from 6 percent to 6.75 percent and raise "sin taxes" on tobacco and alcohol, and impose a $100 registration fee on truck-trailers.
   According to the Department of Education's 2001 report card, the average teacher's salary for the Carter County system is $31,546, while the state average is $37,431 per year.
   "One has the feeling the kids and teachers are being used like chess pieces in some type of monstrous game," added Richard Winters, chairman of the school board.
   The school system is required to submit its budget to the Department of Education in October. The state and school system's fiscal year ends on June 30.
   In welcomed news, the board learned the county's ninth grade students performed well on the new Gateway student assessment exams administered in April.
   Director of Secondary Education Gary Smith reported that 146 of 152 freshmen in the county's four high schools who had taken the Gateway Biology I exam had passed -- approximately 96.7 percent.
   He added that 113 of 137 -- 82.5 percent -- ninth grade students who took the Gateway Algebra I exam passed.
   New state testing policy requires ninth grade students to pass the Gateway Algebra I exam to receive their high school diplomas.
   "It's a good thing the scores are good, because with the budget cuts we can't afford to do a lot of remediation for the students who didn't pass," said Smith.
   The board also approved 4-0 to name the agriculture building at Unaka High School the John Hardin Agriculture Building.
   The naming was recommended by Unaka parents in honor of Hardin, agriculture program teacher at the school for over 30 years, who retired this year.
   Board members Ernest Ritchie and Daniel Holder were absent.
   The board also voted 4-0 to accept a bid of $32,600 from Image Communications of Nashville to install wireless hardware for the system's mobile computer labs.
   The labs will be located in all four county high schools and are being co-funded through the Niswonger Foundation of Greeneville.
   System Director of Finance Jerome Kitchens said the county would spend approximately $80,000 to $90,000 on the project while the Foundation would provide around $346,000.
   Two labs will be operational in Happy Valley and Cloudland high schools this year with the remaining labs scheduled to be running in Hampton and Unaka next year, said Kitchens.