Superintendent laments failure of wheel tax

By Stephen S. Glass

Star Staff

   Superintendent of Carter County Schools Dallas Williams said Wednesday that he was disappointed by the failure of the wheel tax on Tuesday's referendum.
   Had the tax passed by popular vote, both city and county schools would have benefited from new revenue, with county schools collecting a projected $410,480 annually.
   County schools have been falling behind financially since July, said Williams, when county commissioners voted down a 31 cent property tax increase.
   Financial Director for Carter County Schools Jerome Kitchens said at the time that new money was needed to offset the rising cost of workers' compensation insurance, utilities, and other necessities. School board members had also hoped to use a portion of the money to increase pay for teachers and paraprofessionals.
   "We have been dealing with budget problems since July, when we were forced to cut $436,000 from our budget," Williams said yesterday. "We had hoped to recover that money with revenue from the wheel tax, and we certainly want to thank everybody who went out and voted for it. Unfortunately there just weren't enough of us."
   School board members made cuts to science programs, band programs, staff development programs, and libraries following the July vote.
   Williams says that the failure of the wheel tax will likely force the school system to make further cuts this year, though he was not prepared to speculate when or to what programs.
   "The board will have to list those priorities," he said.
   According to Williams, the schools continue to face increased expenditures without increased income.
   "We've been notified of a 25 percent increase in the cost of state health insurance," Williams said. "That's going to put us over budget for the year by something like $102,000."
   That increase is expected to take effect in January.
   In addition to local funding problems, the schools are also facing a bleak financial picture from the state, where declines in revenue have lead to a ballooning budget shortfall and an uncertain fiscal forecast for most offices.
   State school officials are being cautious with funds, not knowing how the budget will play out this year and the next.
   Schools across the state have had 75 percent of funds for extended contracts and enrichment programs withheld indefinitely by the Tennessee Department of Education.
   In a recent letter to school superintendents statewide, Commissioner of Education Faye Taylor said the enrichment money would be kept in Nashville until it was economically feasible for the department to release it.
   "Nothing is certain right now concerning funds for extended contracts and enrichment programs," said Supervisor of Secondary Education Gary Smith last week.
   Smith said that state fiscal uncertainty would likely force the school system to cancel eight of nine enrichment programs come January.
   "The bottom line is this: We're going to have to cut services unless something changes," Williams said yesterday. "For now, we're just going to watch and see how state revenue develops from sales tax and other sources. We'll make adjustments as we have to."