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Thoughts on the school budget dilemma

Sign in front of Oak Ridge High SchoolAt Oak Ridge Today, I was asked how I would vote on the Oak Ridge Schools budget tomorrow evening if I were a member of City Council. The commenter requested a yes-no answer, but they aren’t going to get one.

I don’t have the same information that Council members have right now, so  I can’t be sure what I’d be thinking or how I’d plan to vote if I were on City Council. The only budget request I’ve seen from the schools is the board’s budget and I haven’t been privy to the messages that I know Council members are getting from citizens, school officials, and city staff. It’s a safe bet that Council members are hearing from folks who want them to increase the amount (by how much, I can’t say) that the city government transfers to the schools, and that this is being requested so that the schools can restore some teaching positions that would otherwise be cut under the schools budget for the 2013-2014 school year.

So what do I think? I’m distressed by news reports that indicate that school budget cuts will cut into some “meat and bones,” including laying off some teachers.  The reductions are partly justified by lower K-12 enrollment projections and interim superintendent Bob Smallridge says that impacts on the instructional program will be minimal, but I can’t avoid thinking that these reductions will reduce the school system’s ability to meet our kids’ needs.

However, I also have to assume that an increase in the city transfer to the schools would mean increasing the city property tax rate above the current rate of $2.39 per $100 assessed value. Because Oak Ridgers value our quality school system, many residents would gladly pay more tax to avoid cuts to the schools. At the same time, though, a tax increase would be a burden on some citizens and would make Oak Ridge a little less competitive with surrounding communities with lower taxes. Therefore, Council needs to look extremely carefully at what Oak Ridgers will get for their money if the city decides to increase property taxes in order to send more money to the schools.

Unfortunately, it appears to me from the Oak Ridge Schools budget (available at this link) that the school board and school administration may be putting a higher priority on management than on teachers and kids. This continues a disturbing pattern we saw in years past. Adding up the pluses and minuses in the summary of expenditures on page 25 of the budget, I find that “Instruction” (lines 71100 to 71900) would be cut by $424,809, “Support Services” for students and instruction (lines 72120 to 72230) would be cut $163,689, “Transportation” (mostly school buses) would be cut $76,787, but the combination of facility operations and various centralized administrative functions and services (lines 72310 to 72620 and line 72810) would get an increase of $270,087. Increasing the budget in that last category, while cutting budgets for functions that directly affect students, suggests that the school board and school administration don’t have the same priorities that I believe most of the school system’s advocates have — or possibly even that this is a deliberate strategy to put public pressure on City Council to increase the school budget. [Edited May 29: In email and at the Oak Ridge Daily Hoot, Angi Agle has explained  that the transportation reduction is not a cut in services, but is merely a result of shifting bus leasing costs from the Transportation line to the Equipment Rental & Replacement Fund line, which is a budget line that I didn’t include in the summary tallies above. She also notes an increase in the budget for water and sewer costs paid to the city. Both the schools and the city government must pay retail rates for these utility services, the same as if they were private businesses, so both budgets are affected by increased water and sewer rates. The increase in the water & sewer line in next year’s school budget is $67,127, so it accounts for about one-fourth of the administrative functions and services increase I noted above.]

Under Oak Ridge’s city charter, the City Council can’t amend the Oak Ridge Schools budget or tell the school system how to spend its money.  However,  if City Council is asked to increase property taxes to augment the school budget, City Council needs to ask hard questions — and get good answers to those questions — to provide assurance that any extra funding for the schools will go to address the needs of students, not the needs of administrators. Also, it’s high time for the school administration and city administration to get serious about something that Council members pushed for over the last several years — exploring opportunities to improve the efficiency of Oak Ridge’s public enterprise (that is, city government and the school district) by sharing resources in functions like facility maintenance and purchasing.

I know that all Council members value Oak Ridge’s schools and want the best for them, but unless better answers are forthcoming than I saw over the last several years, I’m afraid that Council will feel they must say “no” to a school system request for additional funds.

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10 Comments

  1. Mike Mahathy says:

    Ellen,

    Good article. At least some of the increase in the administration costs represents the higher salary the new superintendent will receive. Like you I’m not privy to all of the budget facts but the system puts out a line by line budget so if either of us wanted to take the time we could see what items comprise that budget and compare to this current year’s budget.

    I have asked council to vote fur an increase in budget and a small tax increase if necessary.

    Mike

  2. Ellen Smith says:

    I have looked at the school board budget detail, Mike. As with most budgets, some items are easier to figure out than others. There are some odd features that I believe are due to state requirements for school district budgets.

    The vast majority of the budget is personnel, and the “big picture” of the changes is that there would be a net reduction of 16.8 FTE positions. Based on the personnel salary totals for different functional areas, it appears that all except one of the reductions would come from the areas of instruction, instructional staff support, and technology-career support.

    PS – An example of the oddities of the budget is that the “Board of Education” section includes what appear to be the entire annual school-system budgets for worker’s compensation (up $40K for 2014), unemployment (down $20K), retiree medical insurance (down $5K) and several similar items. On the other hand, employee fringe benefits (such as social security, state retirement, life insurance, and vision insurance) are separately itemized for every activity type.

  3. Mike Mahathy says:

    I take it then that that worker’s comp costs went up while some other costs declined which is not out of line for fewer employees.

    It would be nice if the city budget included as much detail as in much of the school budget. It’s been a model for the city to use for awhile.

    By the way I did email most of council yesterday asking each to support the school system fully.

  4. Andrew Howe says:

    An item on today’s school board agenda is an upgrade of the security system. Around $55K worth of surveillance tech and $19K of backend computers to run it, totaling about $74K.

    They do appear to be retaining older components that can be merged into the new system (A/D encoders for the analog cameras, instead of full replacement).

    Not sure if this will be a point of issue/interest this evening at the CC meeting, or in the future, but there it is.

  5. j lyons says:

    the Knoxville News Sentinel did a ranked comparison of area school systems in Feb. 2013. what struck me was how similar in size and performance the Oak Ridge and Maryville systems are, while Oak Ridge spent 30% more per student ($12.4K v. 9.5K). what also stood out was Oak Ridge schools required 30% more administrators than Maryville schools (22 v. 14). keeping in mind Maryville was ranked #1 and Oak Ridge #2, it’s obvious that more money isn’t the answer to every problem. we need to ask ourselves “what would Maryville do?”

  6. Mike Mahathy says:

    J – You only told part of th story. Oak Ridge has a much higher percentage of both low income and special needs students than Maryville, each if which bring additional federal requirements for services. For example did you know that the city must provide either bus or taxi service for homeless students. We have had several in the past. Many of the people classified as administration actually support pupil needs and regulatory requirements. They also have some training specialists, e.g. math specialists that pay dividends across the system and further satisfy requirements.

    I’m not saying there is no fat in administration but we must know the truth.

  7. Ellen Smith says:

    Mike, I have never found the school board budget to be more detailed than the city budget. Notably, the city budget breaks expenditures down to many of the city’s specific functions — you can easily find the total annual operating cost for the library, outdoor pool, and senior center, for example. I defy you to go to the school board budget and tell me how much is spent annually on “elementary schools” (or any individual elementary school, for that matter) or “Oak Ridge High School” or school sports — that kind of detail isn’t there.

  8. Mike Mahathy says:

    I think I struck a nerve Ellen. :)

    While we have individual schools the school system is operated as an integrated system. There are common and shared teachers and functions across the system and at schools. For example, music teachers are mostly shared at more than one school. Giving you a total by school might be possible depending on how the data is entered but you can get totals for about every facet of the system. For example about $16,875,000 is being budgeted for regular instruction teachers (as opposed to special ed, alternative and home bound). They go so far as to list each portion of benefits separate. I have seen company budgets not nearly as detailed as theirs. I agree it would be good to see totals by school but I think they more than match what the city does, in my opinion which has not been tried by public service as has yours.

  9. Sam Hopwood says:

    I knew I would not get a yes/no answer to my question but it needed to be asked. You are already running for council and want to cover all the bases. I understand that. Council ultimately voted the right way, in my view. However, the school board still “just does not get it.” I am really surprised at that.

    Just my view.

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