This is a familiar story, isn’t it? Our school system tells it once a year. In fact, the telling is almost a late Summer tradition. Of course, you never know how the annual deficit story will end. During some budget years, the acting Director heroically balances the budget with all numbers perfectly in place <wink, wink> and no tax increase required. Other years, the process becomes a horror story for all involved.
This year’s budget, I think, will be one of those horrifying tales.
The system started the process back in June with a proposed deficit of $4.5 million. Newly appointed Director of Schools Steve Starnes subsequently whittled that amount down to slightly over $2 million. He did this by making steep cuts in some areas and transferring other expenses to categories involving federal funds. (Cuts include the elimination of 13 teacher positions, six of which were actual layoffs and seven open positions that weren’t filled, a reduction of teacher attendance incentive bonuses by $97,900 and elimination of several freshman coaches and other support staff from high school athletics totaling $47,673.) The system now proposes to eliminate the remaining deficit by paying $1.068 million from the reserve and requesting a 12-cent property tax increase to fund the remaining $1.012 million.
Not all Board of Education members were thrilled with the final figures; however, Starnes was adamant that he and his staff have eliminated everything they can without affecting student programs. So, the budget was approved by the BOE and will go before the Hawkins County Commission on August 25 @ 7:00 p.m.
I do not expect an easy passage. The Sheriff’s Department and other county agencies are expected to seek substantial increases as well. Consequently, this year’s budget process may be even worse than last year’s when the BOE’s controversial funding shift, hefty IRS fines, and problems with the salary scale brought things to a screeching halt, placed state funding at risk, and nearly caused the sky over Hawkins County to split open and rain a plague of toads, locusts, and Democrats down upon the people. Okay, it wasn’t THAT bad. But the process was less than pleasant.
I predict that this year will be more of the same. The budget will be sent back to the BOE with the same side-eye given to the system’s highest-paid employees – the central office administrators. (SEE LIST OF Central Office Positions and Salaries) I also think, because a tax increase is on the table, citizens and county leaders are going to be giving those top-level positions a closer look than before. County Commissioner Danny Alvis has already asked Starnes if our system administrators are mandated positions. According to Starnes, while the state does not require those positions, they do recommend the number of supervisors, and, based on those numbers, Hawkins County is already understaffed in the Central Office by five. Those remaining are, according to Starnes, essential to operations.
But who, specifically, are they? The Tennessee Department of Education? Some other agency? Where can I find those recommendations? In the BEP funding formulas? Do they also have recommendations for classroom and instructional staffing/finance? Do we follow those recommendations as well? How do we prioritize classroom, instructional and non-instructional recommendations? And do we adjust our budget accordingly? Are we spending public monies in areas that will increase the level of student performance? I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions, and herein lies the problem. Parents and taxpayers are at an informational disadvantage that makes it impossible to reconcile what SYSTEM SAYS with what WE SEE.
What WE SEE are overburdened teachers and schools struggling to do more with less. We see classes with too few textbooks and students losing instructional time to testing. We see assessment programs, vendors and state-preferred service providers changing constantly – while other programs fall by the wayside after we’ve paid for training and implementation or they become liabilities because the cost of administration outweighs or diminishes any benefits. We SEE HCK12 entering into employment contracts for high-paid positions without a budget in place and then turning around and making cuts in areas that directly impact the student experience.
What We SEE is a trend of growth on the top and a crumbling at the bottom. No one seems to consider the possibility that the bottom is crumbling under the weight of the top. Our board representatives are far too busy addressing (or being sidetracked by) less important (imo) issues.
I know cuts are difficult, and I don’t envy Starnes’ position. But I do think if you’re going to ask residents in a county – where the per capita income is approximately $20,000 and over 20% of our population is so far below the poverty line that they can’t even jump up and see middle class – to support a tax increase, then you’re obligated to consider all options, including streamlining your management team. So, I would the challenge the Board of Education Members and Director Starnes to evaluate the job description of each system administrator, define what that administrator contributes to the system, and determine if there is some duplication of responsibilities. Then, address any overlaps or inefficiencies before any additional cuts are made at the classroom or instruction level. I’d also encourage you – parents, guardians, taxpayers – to share your thoughts and opinions with your board members and commissioners.
Ask them questions. Seek answers. Get the details. Be Specific. Hold them Accountable. Because if the board wants us to buy this year’s budget story without contention or controversy, then it needs to ring true.