Blount County Schools will have to find $3.1 million in cuts to meet the amount the county’s Budget Committee approved for the 2020-21 school year.

The Blount County Board of Education had passed a $95.17 million plan for general operating expenses last week, but the County Commission’s Budget Committee unanimously voted Thursday, May 14, to reduce the amount to $92.07 million.

The County Commission is scheduled to vote on the appropriation next month.

Members of the Budget Committee objected to plans to use nearly $3.1 million in previously undesignated funds to shore up the budget amid an expected decrease in tax revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Committee member Sharon Hannum, who made the motion to reduce the school budget, noted that with concerns about the economy, other county departments aren’t planning to use money from their reserves yet.

“Since we don’t know when schools will open, how they will open and what resources will be needed to reopen we should keep the fund balance available to address all the other issues and concerns,” she said.

County Mayor Ed Mitchell concurred. “We should not be using fund balance at a time when we don’t know what the future is on our revenues,” he said.

BCS has not included in the 2020-21 budget $1.96 million in funding it expects to receive under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Pointing to the fact online learning schools continued when buildings remained closed after March’s spring break because of the pandemic, Mitchell said,”There’s going to be a new way of doing things in education.”

“We’ve seen that bricks-and-mortar costs need a hard look,” he said.

Close buildings?

Although Blount County Schools is expecting enrollment to rise by 140 or more students in the next school year, data presented to the county’s Education Committee in September 2019 showed overall the district’s 21 buildings were at about 78% of capacity.

Among the 14 elementary schools, however, enrollment at four was less than 60%, with a low of 44% at Porter.

With about 300 students, Lanier was at about 57% of capacity, and the school board’s budget for next year included $877,500 from the fund balance to replace the sewer plant on campus, which school officials have said is close to failure. School board Chair Debbie Sudhoff said last week that the district would attempt to secure a grant for that project.

The proposed use of fund balance also included a $52,000 payment to connect Friendsville Elementary to new sewer lines, the second of several annual payments. A federal grant for the project requires a $424,115 local investment, for which the city of Friendsville is paying $164,115 and the school district $260,000. With about 230 students, that school was at 59% capacity.

“When we talk about putting millions and millions of dollars into buildings that have less than 60% occupancy, I think we have an opportunity here, during this time, to take that money and reinvest it in the kids and the teachers instead of in bricks and mortar and failing sewer systems and things such as that,” Mitchell said.

“They say it’s a hard decision to decide to close schools,” he said. “Well I say that there’s a lot of hard decisions that a lot of business people and citizens across this county and this state are making every day when they’re facing this virus and the unknowns that it’s brought into their businesses and their personal lives.

“To say we can’t do something that we know will benefit the kids and the teachers because we don’t want to make those tough decisions and those hard decisions and things like that I think is totally against why people are elected,” he said.

“There’s never been a better time to understand that we can do it differently,” Mitchell said.

Unknowns

BCS Director Rob Britt said in an interview following the meeting that closing a school would be a real challenge in a good year, and with the uncertainty now, it would be extremely challenging.

The first day of classes is scheduled to be July 29, and administrators don’t know what new health guidelines may be in place because of the coronavirus.

Britt noted that many families also are facing additional issues now, such as unemployment, and “to close a school in that environment would be harsh.”

“There is no way that we could effectively close a school and have the students and their families reassigned to another school before schools open in July,” Sudhoff said in an interview, noting that the challenges would include rerouting buses, too. “It’s not as easy as shutting down a facility,” she said.

Sudhoff said she understands and shares concerns about the use of the fund balance.

“It’s going to be tough for us to carve out that $3.1 million,” she said. “We’ll get to work on it.”

The school board voted to give employees a 1.1% raise on stop of a step increase, while the Budget Committee is recommending the County Commission delay giving even a step increase to other employees until at least December, when the economic picture will be clearer.

“We value our employees; they deserve a pay increase,” Sudhoff said, but a delay could be among the options the school board considers.

She agreed that the school board may need to study facility options and said, “I think we’re going to have to make some hard decisions in the future.”

“You hate to pull out of a community,” she said. “One of the things we hear over and over is the importance of community schools.”

The proposed budget includes $253,000 from the fund balance to begin converting Eagleton Middle School to serve students all the way through high school.

Other major items in the $3.1 million BCS proposed to use from the fund balance include $1.5 million in recurring operating costs and $435,000 for English language arts curriculum materials.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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