By Collin Brooks
Passing a balanced FY 2018 budget was the main reason for the Washington County School Board’s called session on Thursday, June 8. But discussions toward future explorations that could be done in next year’s budget seemed to get the most attention.
In passing the amended and balanced budget the school system only used $1.3 million from their fund balance — leaving a balance of $3.7 million in the reserve fund. They are mandated by state law to keep a balance of at least $2 million by state law.
Their amended budget included $303,000 in one-time funding exceptions for a literacy level readers library in K-8 ($137,500) and some ViewSonic Classroom interactive panels ($166,000).
They were also able to reduce $191,000 in electric, audit fees, salaries and diesel fuel and they added the $97,000 Star 360 reading tests, which means they were able to save $94,000 after adding and subtracting items.
But the biggest discussions came when adding enrollment became the center point for the conversation. Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said the school board should have their eye on one prize, or 112 of them.
“If we are wanting to ramp up enrollment, let’s start with the low hanging fruit and that is the 112 Washington County students whose parents are paying tuition for them to go to Johnson City (schools),” Eldridge said. “Let’s get them back.”
He said that should be the goal of the school board, not drawing in students from different counties with stronger academics, technology and new buildings.
“It really concerns me that we are talking about the potential to try and attract students from surrounding counties,” Eldridge said in a rare school board meeting appearance.
He noted that when a student comes from out of county, those counties don’t have to pay Washington County the local portion of the school funding, they keep it.
“So basically what you are doing is, you’re putting Washington County in a position where we are increasing our student enrollment, without increasing the local portion of the funding,” Eldridge said. “So you are actually diluting the per pupil expenditure funding.”
He said that state funding follows the student, local funding does not and that they would receive $4,000 from the state, but it is costing over $8,400 to educate the student.
“Quite honestly, I don’t think we are going forward when we’re bringing out of county students here,” he said. “What we are doing, I’ll use Greene County as an example, we are educating Greene County students with Washington County taxpayer dollars, that’s the bottom line.”
Before that discussion was held, school board member Keith Ervin said he would like the school system to try to attract kids in Pre-K.
“In my opinion, I think we can get enrollment up if we can push for PreK,” Ervin said.
Currently the system has three PreKs, two paid for by the state and one by a Niswonger grant they received. But the system is always turning down interested parents, noting that the school system had about 60 interested in Grandview and then 25-30 at Lamar and 45 interested at Gray. Each classroom can only serve 20. There are also HeadStart programs at the schools, but the system could serve as many as 200 students if they had a PreK in every school.
However, those students don’t count towards the districts enrollment until the following year in Kindergarten.
Ervin said that he knows it cost the district a lot of money —throwing out the number $120,000 per classroom — but he felt like it was an investment that would help the system.
Due to the declining enrollment, determined to be close to 800 students over the last six years, the system was forced to make cuts in their staff. Some of those numbers were put into context by Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton when she said that the 24 positions that were cut by resignation, retirement or non-renewal was on par with the previous year.
Last year, there were 20 staff members reduced. This year it was 24, as 10 teaching positions were cleared through resignations, retirements and non-renewals. Of those 10 there were five teachers that retired or resigned and five that were not renewed, Halliburton said.
“That is just one percent of the teaching force,” Halliburton said.
Of the 14 teaching assistants, eight of those were non-renewals. Last year there were 5 non-renewals.
Halliburton said that those decisions weren’t budgetary, but they were up to the school’s principals. Non-renewals are left up to the principals, ultimately, Halliburton said.
“So we really won’t be hiring many people this next year then, will we?” Washington County Board of Education Member Phil McLain asked.
“Not unless enrollment goes up,” Halliburton said.
She mentioned that everything should be filled with existing personnel, but the system is keeping an eye on Ridgeview, Grandview and Daniel Boone, where the school may have to add an addition or two to the staff.
Washington County Board of Education member Mary Beth Dellinger said that she had teachers that were calling her upset that they are losing instructional assistants. She said that teachers have told her they value instructional assistants over academic coaches.
Halliburton said that the board had set out with the plan of having an academic coach in every school and she felt like there would be fewer non-renewals if there were academic coaches in every school.
“Because you can help teachers that are struggling,” she said.
Dellinger disputed Halliburton’s claims, saying she was only relaying the voice of the teachers, but Halliburton didn’t agree and said she has received no e-mails or phone calls from citizens with concerns about the budget.
“I don’t think that you have polled all teachers in this county and I’ll tell you this, at some point we need to decide where we want to go academically with this district, so this is the way to go,” Halliburton said.
Dr. Ellis Holcombe, who serves as director of federal programs for the system, clarified that at least half of the money in the school system that pays for academic coaches comes from the federal government, who dictates that money can only be used for teachers that don’t work with students. The academic coaches jobs are to help fine tune the teachers skills.
BOE Chairman Jack Leonard mentioned that there are schools currently in the system, like South Central, that don’t currently have an academic coach.
“These teachers are critical to what we do,” Halliburton said.
Boones Creek K-8 Update
The Board of Education plans have been sent to BurWil Construction and have been distributed across the United States, which should help the bids be very competitive. Architect Tony Street also said that he hopes to be receiving bids back this week, and hopefully have information on Friday.
Those bids will be brought back to the BOE during their June 20 meeting and decisions will be made, with a packet possibly appearing before the county commission at their June 26 meeting.