By Collin Brooks
A $1.4 million deficit by the Washington County Board of Education for next school year was the most important item on the agenda during the Washington County Budget meeting on Thursday, April 27.
But after the meeting, it appeared that another strife took center stage between the two bodies.
While discussing the fact that no new money would be available for the county school system during the coming year, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge posed a question to school board Chairman Jack Leonard, who was in attendance.
“I’ve got a question for the board (Washington County Board of Education),” Eldridge said. “That $8 million athletic complex at Boones Creek appears to me to be a deal killer, the way I have heard it. If that athletic complex is not part of the deal, then you don’t want that facility. You don’t want that school.”
From the crowd, Leonard said that hadn’t been said to him. Eldridge said that was the clear message he received from the BOE budget meeting he attended.
Eldridge went on to say, “Is that $8 million athletic complex more important than these needs? And I know we are talking about two different pots of money. We are talking about capital dollars and we are talking about operating dollars, but we use revenue from the tax base to pay for those capital needs. And I guess my question is, in the order of priorities, what is more important? Balancing this budget or building an $8 million athletic complex? Because that money can help offset, it won’t make this deficit go away, but it can help offset this deficit.”
He said he would like to hear from the Board of Education in that regard.
Eldridge said that pennies that are funding new capital projects, could be switched and designated for operation funds.
“One of the things that I think we have got to come to terms with is that in Washington County for a long time, we’ve made bricks and mortar the priority… And I think those days are over. There is not enough money to do both. We are looking at growth in revenue that doesn’t come close to offsetting the growth expenditures in any year. And quite frankly, based on what I am seeing, it never will again.”
Later in the discussion, Leonard said that the school system may have to take a look into cutting things that people in the community cherish.
“I’ll be honest with you, all we have to do, by law, is academics,” Leonard said. “We don’t have to have athletics. We don’t have to have basketball, football or any of that. By state law all we have to do is teach them the standards. So we could go back and we can cancel all that out and we can have the parents of this community get really upset.”
Eldridge said that was completely the school board’s call. Leonard said it may be something that board has to look into, but shed light on that fact that he was frustrated with how the process was being handled.
“I felt like I was threatened when you said ‘Do you want your athletics or your academics?” he said. “And that really upsets me, because I extended my hand to you in cooperation and I have worked with you and worked with you. And for this to come forward like that, it’s not fair.”
Leonard admitted he was upset with the way the mayor was handling the situation, which he said before he got up to leave the room.
“I certainly didn’t mean to make him upset,” said Eldridge after Leonard exited the room. “But if we can’t have an honest discussion about the challenges we face in funding a school system that is shrinking in size every year, then, I’m sorry, he is going to have to be upset.”
Both Eldridge and Budget Chairman Joe Grandy stressed during the meeting that no new funds would be available for the school system.
“We have pulled every rabbit out of the hat to get the money to you to make that happen and there is no more money,” Eldridge said. “Believe me, I’m not saying this to be argumentative at all, it’s just really important that we talk very straight with each other. And this is just the reality of the economic environment we are in.”
Grandy said he hoped the school system would be able to find the money in other areas of their budget.
“We need to get back in here and work on this,” Grandy said. “A lot of the stuff in the additional part, appeals to me a lot. Because it’s performance enhancement drivers and those are the kinds of things that this commission has been asking for years.”
The deficit was prompted by the BOE trying to provide each of their employees a two percent raise, among other items like adding two more academic coaches and other performance enhancing measures in software and teacher and administrative training. Items that must be added to next year’s budget due to federal requirements are two special education teachers, a special education instructional assistant and a part-time English as a second language teacher.
The board will readdress their budget during their May 4th meeting. Parents from Gray Elementary have also requested to speak in front of the board in the matter of the reinstatement of Gray Elementary school teacher Jennifer Collins.