‘Balancing act:’ Blount County commissioners face challenges in funding education
By Matthew Stewart | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In an era of nearly unprecedented academic standards, accountability and mandated testing, the Blount County Board of Education and the Blount County Commission spent a total of 60 minutes last fiscal year discussing local responses and the funding required to support them.
The end result: $81 million.
It was a 6.8 percent decrease from the school board’s appropriations request and a nearly 2 percent — or $1,639,041 — reduction from fiscal year 2012-13.
As stewards of a nearly $165 million budget, the Blount County Commission seeks to balance a number of political interests, including public education. Commissioners allocated resources in the fiscal year 2013-14 budget to more than 100 cost centers, including:
• an $81 million general purpose school budget
• a $44.1 million general fund budget;
• a $10.5 million sheriff’s department budget;
• a $7.4 million jail budget;
• a $4.2 million highway and bridge maintenance budget;
• and a $1.75 million libraries budget.
In recent months, the Blount County Board of Education has lobbied its funding body for additional revenue. Board members argued that $81 million would compromise its ongoing efforts to provide a quality education for Blount County’s students and requested $86.8 million.
Both bodies met March 26 to discuss the $86.8 million appropriations request. School officials presented their request, and commissioners asked four questions about it in the 60-minute meeting.
It was the only public meeting held to address the school district’s request.
In the nearly three-month interval between the joint budget work session and the commission’s budget approval, the school board engaged in a one-way public conversation with its funding body. Board members made assertions and requests in their public meetings, but the funding body wasn’t there to hear them.
During the past month, The Daily Times has sought opinions from commissioners about Blount County Schools, funding challenges and funding priorities. Eight out of 21 elected officials responded.
Tab Burkhalter Jr., Tonya Burchfield, Richard Carver, Mike Caylor, Tom Greene, Mark Hasty, Gerald Kirby, Mike Lewis, Jerome Moon and Monika Murrell didn’t respond to repeated interview requests for this story. Gary Farmer declined to comment. Reporters were unable to reach Roy Gamble and Scott Helton, because they don’t have voicemail.
Here are the comments from the commissioners who did respond:
• How well do you think Blount County is funding Blount County Schools? “After this recent budget where we increased the portion of total taxes dedicated to education, I think they’re adequately funded.”
• What are your personal funding priorities? “Education is a very important priority. My background is in technology. I started several technology companies, and I’ve seen firsthand the problems that we face in employing highly qualified, technical people. Education is a key part of addressing these problems. We need schools to be run effectively, so students will be ready for the work force when they leave.”
• What’s an appropriate level of funding for Blount County Schools? “The county schools are receiving an appropriate level of funding.”
• What challenges do the County Commission face when funding education, particularly Blount County Schools? “We considered a grant at our (June) meeting that would obligate us to spend more than $600,000 for eight additional Blount County Sheriff’s Office employees in two years. I was concerned about it, because the sheriff hadn’t come to us, made his case, and explained the need for these positions. It’s something we needed to hear, because the county might need textbooks for our kids more than those eight positions. We were elected to make those decisions. In my opinion, the County Commission looks very critically at the school system’s budget. We’d be a lot better off if they looked more critically at the Sheriff’s Office’s budget. I’ve heard some talk about wasteful spending in the school department. However, a huge source of wasteful spending is the Sheriff’s Office. It needs to be fixed. The sheriff controls budgets totaling about $22 million.”
Public officials need more time to discuss budget issues, Folts said. “In Blount County, the budget process is broken. We spent two one-hour meetings on a budget that’s more than 300 pages. Both meetings were held in June, and you can’t possibly review that much material in such a short amount of time. The full commission needs to get into the budget much earlier in the process. We need to start meeting no later than March and need to hold at least 10 meetings. We need to discuss alternative spending options, or we’re not properly serving the community. The community would benefit from an open exchange, because there’s very little give and take right now.”
The state’s split-dollar provision is another challenge, he said. “In essence, the (split-dollar) formula means that the county can never catch up, freezing the county system in place in relation to the others. The formula isn’t correct, and we’re limited by what we can do.”
Public Chapter 305 is a “step in the right direction,” Folts said. The recently approved state law allows the commission to allocate funds for one-time expenditures that wouldn’t be subject to maintenance-of-effort requirements or the state’s split-dollar provisions.
• What’s your opinion of Blount County Schools in terms of the quality of education that it provides to students? “The trends in our county schools are positive. (Director of Schools) Rob Britt has made a number of changes, and there’s little to no doubt in my mind that they’re headed in the right direction. In fact, the data shows it very clearly.”
• How does it compare to Alcoa City and Maryville City schools? Blount County Schools’ “academic growth is nearly identical to Alcoa and Maryville. That’s definitely impressive. However, it’s more impressive when you realize that they’re spending significantly less than Alcoa and Maryville.”
• Would additional funds make a difference? “I don’t believe pushing more money at something necessarily results in improvements. You need to review specific programs, get data about their effectiveness, and decide whether they would benefit from more money. Rob Britt and his staff measure everything in our schools. I’ve visited many of our county schools and seen them measuring academic performance for each school, grade level, classroom, and student. They’re looking at programs and deciding where they can spend more and less money.”
• How well do you think Blount County is funding Blount County Schools? “In the past, we’ve done a fairly good job and made a conscious effort to meet needs. We’ve had to cut back due to the economy, though. A lot of things changed in the past couple years, including educational standards and technology demands. We need to try to give them more money, but I don’t where we would get it.”
• What are your personal funding priorities? “Debt and education. In my mind, they go hand in hand. Both are extremely important, because we need to take care of our future.”
• What’s an appropriate level of funding for Blount County Schools? “If we could fund the budget that they bring to us, it’d be an appropriate level of funding. I personally can’t say what the county schools need. They’re the ones who know about their needs — whether it’s improvements in technology or textbooks. We rely upon them, so an appropriate level would be to fund their budget request.”
• What challenges do the County Commission face when funding education, particularly Blount County Schools? “Trying to find revenue sources, especially in this economy. We need to find new revenues.”
• What’s your opinion of Blount County Schools in terms of the quality of education that it provides to students? “They’re doing a bang-up job. They’re receiving (per-pupil) funding below the state average, teaching without new textbooks, and working with fewer people than previous years. I’m very pleased with their results. They’ve got excellent administrators, and the quality of their teachers is very impressive. We couldn’t ask for better people, and I can’t fault them for anything. My two kids went to Blount County Schools about 20 years ago to 25 years ago. They received as good of an education as anywhere else. I’m proud of the way that they developed.”
• How does it compare to Alcoa City and Maryville City schools? “Based on per-pupil expenditures, I think we’re doing just as well. I don’t perceive a difference between them. In some cases, Blount County Schools is doing better. They were an exemplary school district with four Reward Schools.”
• Would additional funds make a difference? “Additional funds would make a difference. They could use new textbooks and library books. The libraries haven’t received funds for six years. Anytime you can provide more reading material for kids, it’s going to make a difference.”
• How well do you think Blount County is funding Blount County Schools? “All the schools we’ve built and all the $81 million budget is very above adequate.”
• What are your personal funding priorities? “I think it needs to be spread out equally and that one entity shouldn’t be hoggish. If we never fund our roads, and the schools keep grabbing it every time we get a fund balance — that makes the general county, the highway department, the sheriff’s department, parks and recreation, and everybody (else) suffer because the schools are getting everything. I just want to see that it’s spread out fairly.”
• What’s an appropriate level of funding for Blount County Schools? “I think what they are at now is more than appropriate.”
• What challenges do the County Commission face when funding education, particularly Blount County Schools? “Mainly just the increases. They are needing $8.6 million more, or a couple million dollars more every year. It’s mainly their needing their increase and just meeting the maintenance of effort.”
• What’s your opinion of Blount County Schools in terms of the quality of education that it provides to students? “It’s at a good level. I’ve visited the schools. They seem new and very nice inside. I would rate the county schools very high on their education.”
• How does it compare to Alcoa City and Maryville City schools? “It’s bigger and there are more schools, so it’s easier for Maryville and Alcoa to be centralized.”
• Would additional funds make a difference? “Yes, depending on how it is dispersed. I disagree with spending funds starting at the top even though we have no control over that. I disagree with some making $140,000-plus, and then they are laying off the teacher’s aides. They are cutting from the bottom. I’d rather see them sacrifice a little from the top.”
• How well do you think Blount County is funding Blount County Schools? “Blount County is attempting to fund schools at the rate commiserate with what the constituents expect. They’ve spoken in two referendums where the new taxes were directly related to schools. However, there’s some interest (for additional education revenues), because it hasn’t been unanimous.”
• What are your personal funding priorities? “We need to acknowledge and fund programs that are mandated by state law, such as education, law enforcement and roads. They’re my main priorities.”
• What’s an appropriate level of funding for Blount County Schools? “That’s a tough question to answer. Technically speaking, it’d be the amount necessary to fund them. I couldn’t determine it. We rely upon the school board to set that amount. We’re dependent on them, because they’re the ones who make those decisions. We do our best to meet it.”
• What challenges do the County Commission face when funding education, particularly Blount County Schools? “There’s a lot of issues. We’re sometimes hit with state and federal mandates that are unfunded. We also have to understand the programs, scope, and direction that the schools are leading us. It’s not a challenge that’s only related to schools. We face that challenge with all departments. It’s up to us to understand what each department is requesting. It requires a lot of study and work on our part.”
• What’s your opinion of Blount County Schools in terms of the quality of education that it provides to students? “They’ve got a lot of hard working people who are working to provide opportunities for kids. They have a good opportunity to achieve at the level they choose. When I worked for Blount County (Schools), students could achieve at the level that they and their parents set for them. I haven’t had direct contact with them in nearly 14 years, so I don’t know if that’s still the case.”
• How does it compare to Alcoa City and Maryville City schools? “They compare quite well. The county schools are presented with a lot of challenges. Anytime you have three school systems in a county, you’re going to have three different sets of circumstances. You can’t make a 1-to-1 comparison, because it’s not a level playing field. The cities get to spend more money due to city taxes and split dollars. The county will never catch up. It’s a mathematical impossibility.”
• Would additional funds make a difference? “Additional funds would only help if they’re directed at areas of need. I don’t know what those areas of needs are, but the school department has talked about several things, including technology. There’s always going to be a need in technology, because it’s constantly changing.”
• Additional comments: “It takes a lot of study, understanding, and open discussion to get the whole story out. In today’s age, it’s harder to establish communication between all parties. Everyone has an opinion, and it’s extremely difficult to put it all together and get a solution.”
Long Rifle Road, which was severely damaged by a rock slide in January, is a microcosm of the entire political process, Lail said. “We’ve got a few people with a special interest. We’ll have to take tax dollars and spend it on something for a specific group of people. It’s a microcosm for the entire county. Everybody has their own spending priorities. Some people think we should spend all our money on law enforcement. Some people think we should spend all our money on education. Others want us to spend our money on the library and animal shelter. As commissioners, we’ve got the unenviable task of distributing it. We can’t please everyone. Someone is going to get left out.”
• How well do you think Blount County is funding Blount County Schools? “We’re providing adequate funding. We’re meeting their primary needs.”
• What are your personal funding priorities? “Education, law enforcement, economic development, and county roads are all important. We need children to be educated for today’s technology and work force. We need law enforcement to protect us and provide us with freedom from fear. We need jobs, and we need good roads to commute from our homes to our jobs, our schools, and other destinations. They’re equally important in my mind.”
• What’s an appropriate level of funding for Blount County Schools? “The county schools determine their budget. Our duty is to either pass or reject it. It’s up to them to come up with a viable budget. However, I think that we’re providing an appropriate level of funding right now.”
• What challenges do the County Commission face when funding education, particularly Blount County Schools? “We have to consider so many factors, such as split dollars and maintenance of effort. The schools need to prioritize their needs. I was personally very disappointed to learn that only 13 percent of funds would reach the classroom (for operating costs). We can either agree or disagree with their priorities, but we can’t line-item veto.”
• What’s your opinion of Blount County Schools in terms of the quality of education that it provides to students? “They have good, quality teachers and facilities The children are clearly benefitting from them. If I had to give a grade to the county schools, I’d give them a B+. In my mind, there’s several things that separate them from an A. For example, I’d like to see full-time teachers in their computer and technology labs.”
• How does it compare to Alcoa City and Maryville City schools? “I don’t think they’ve reached the level of Maryville and Alcoa based on their test scores and scholarship eligibility.”
• Would additional funds make a difference? “You can’t buy education. You need dedicated teachers and administrators who can impart knowledge to students. You need people who make students want to learn and want to do the right thing. I also think that parents are an important part of the equation. Parents have to be involved, and they have to do their part. When my children were in school, I was a volunteer TA (teaching assistant). I worked two days per week, but I know that it’s harder nowadays. Many parents are working due to taxes.”
• How well do you think Blount County is funding Blount County Schools? “We’re funding them well, to be honest with you. I’m sure the school board and the director of schools don’t think so, but I think we’re funding them well.”
• What are your personal funding priorities? Melton declined to answer.
• What’s an appropriate level of funding for Blount County Schools? “The appropriate funding of schools is what we have right now. We’re giving them $1.09 out of the $2.15 (tax rate). People forget that we have a debt of more than $230 million that we’ve built new schools with, and we need to pay that back. That is 43 cents out of the tax dollar we’re doing there. We need to fund more money there and get that debt service paid down.”• What challenges do the County Commission face when funding education, particularly Blount County Schools? “We have a job to do. Our job is to look after the taxpayers’ money and see that it is spent wisely. That’s our main job. That’s what I look at.”
• What’s your opinion of Blount County Schools in terms of the quality of education that it provides to students? “The quality of education is very good.”
• How does it compare to Alcoa City and Maryville City schools? “I can’t compare that. I don’t have the ability to compare them. I understand they do get more money, because they have city taxes that they collect, we have to split dollars with them. When we split dollars, it means more money to them, too.”
• Would additional funds make a difference? Melton declined to answer.
• How well do you think Blount County is funding Blount County Schools? “At the current time, and in the current economy, I think they’re being funded adequately. We’re doing the best that we can right now.”
• What are your personal funding priorities? “My first priority is debt service. My second priority would be maintaining services, including law enforcements, schools and roads, as best we can.”
• What’s an appropriate level of funding for Blount County Schools? “An appropriate level would be the level that we can comfortably provide and still maintain other services. It all comes out of same pot. We’ve done the best that we can with the services that our citizens need and deserve.”
• What challenges do the County Commission face when funding education, particularly Blount County Schools? “It’s a balancing act with other services. Our taxes don’t all go to roads, law enforcement, or the education department. We also have an obligation to pay off county debts. We have about $200 million in debt, and 90 percent of that debt is school related. We’re providing wonderful facilities. We also have to consider those costs when we’re talking about schools.”
• What’s your opinion of Blount County Schools in terms of the quality of education that it provides to students? “The test results have shown that Blount County Schools is doing a wonderful job with its students. The numbers tell the story. They’ve shown significant improvements in the past five to 10 years.”
• How does it compare to Alcoa City and Maryville City schools? “The Blount County school system is doing a comparable job with Alcoa and Maryville. However, the Blount County school system will never be able to spend the same amount due to split dollars. After all, city and county residents pay county taxes. Split dollars will always wind up giving the cities more money.”
• Would additional funds make a difference? “I don’t think additional funding would create a more level playing field. Blount County is never going to get the same amount of funding. It’s mathematically impossible.”
• Additional comments: “For the money that Blount County Schools receives, they’re doing an excellent job. I support Blount County Schools, as well as the other services that we provide. It’s a balancing act every day. We’re balancing county tax dollars with the services that people need and deserve.”
Gordon E. Wright, Sr.
• How well do you think Blount County is funding Blount County Schools? “My feeling, and the feeling of all my constituents, is that the education department is spending too much. Eighty percent of bonded indebtedness is school related. When you add that money to maintenance of effort, 61 percent of property taxes go to school-related expenses. We’re overspending, especially when you look at the school population. Since 2002, spending has increased tremendously with flat student enrollment. We can’t justify a big expenditure with those numbers. We’ve got 40 to 60 teachers more than required (as determined by the state Department of Education’s Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula). From 1982-90, I was on the County Commission and our teacher-student ratio was more at that time. We’ve always been on the positive side for teachers and teaching assistants. However, it’s not up to me to micromanage their budget.”
• What are your personal funding priorities? “I’m pro-education. I support our schools. My second priority is a combination of general county and economic development, including tourism. We’re putting money into tourism, and it’s paying for itself.”
• What’s an appropriate level of funding for Blount County Schools? “We need to compare ourselves with other counties our size, such as Sullivan and Washington. Spending is set up differently, but they’re spending far less total money on schools.”
• What challenges do the County Commission face when funding education, particularly Blount County Schools? “We’ve taken money out of debt service and put it into education, which is a problem. It’s going to take us a longer time to pay it off. We also stand to lose our credit rating. We face a lot of challenges, including split dollars. While it bothers me that we have to split it, I understand it. City taxpayers are paying for city and county services, and they’re paying for county services, such as schools, that they’re not getting. We wouldn’t have these problems with a metropolitan school system. Blount County and the cities of Alcoa and Maryville have a lot of avenues, and we could probably have a cheaper school system.”
• What’s your opinion of Blount County Schools in terms of the quality of education that it provides to students? “It’s hard for me to judge. They have some great students, and I’m proud of them.”
• How does it compare to Alcoa City and Maryville City schools? “I went through Blount County Schools. We turned out a lot of good people with far less money. I know that times are different, though. Mike Dalton, who later became Maryville’s superintendent, graduated from Walland High School. Benny Dalton, who was Heritage High School’s principal, also went to Walland. We had good people. Big comprehensive high schools seem to have resulted in students becoming numbers instead of personalities. They’ve lost the desire to do better.”
• Would additional funds make a difference? “No, the quality of education lies in teachers. It doesn’t necessarily mean more money. I’m not being negative. Some do an outstanding job. However, we need to focus more on the quality of teachers than money.”
In three cases, county commissioners addressed the role of education in workforce development.
“We’re competing in a global economy, and businesses are looking for educated people to work for them,” French said. “In the future, it’s going to be more difficult to make a living, raise a family, and keep afloat without an education. The Economic Development Board is also working to attract higher-tiered companies. So, education is very important to Blount County’s future. We need to take care of the educational needs of our kids and grandkids.”
“We’re getting more and more technology in businesses like ProNova Solutions,” Harrison said. “They are searching for engineers, and they are needing more highly educated workers. There is almost a lack of highly educated, the type of degrees these companies are seeking, they are having a shortage of (them). They are even having to bring people in because they don’t have enough qualified to step in to the positions for the companies we’ve been recruiting.”
“Everybody is not a college person,” Melton said. “We have to have everybody to make this world go round — a plumber, an electrician, these trades are very important to the county, and I personally think there should be better vocational education development.”
Reporter Joel Davis contributed to this story.