The Blount County Commission supports creating the Eagleton College and Career Academy but disagrees with the school board over how to pay for the project.
After more than an hour of discussion last week, the commission voted to approve spending $298,000 on converting Eagleton Middle School to serve grades 6-12, but from a different funding source than the Board of Education.
The commission’s Budget Committee had recommended the change, and school board member Debbie Sudhoff said during the public comment period at the beginning of the commission’s Feb. 18 meeting that Blount County Schools’ attorney said that committee only has the authority to approve or deny, not amend.
Nineteen commissioners voted to approve the spending through Fund 141, the school district’s operating budget. Commissioners Brad Bowers and Dawn Reagan abstained.
Asked if she would like to place a vote after first abstaining, Reagan replied, “No, because I feel like we’re breaking the law.”
In February 2020, both the Budget Committee and the commission had approved spending $482,000 on the project from the Fund 141 fund balance. Because of COVID-19, the school district did not move forward with the work that budget year and its plans to start the academy last August, so the money remained in that account.
In December 2020, the school board approved spending $298,000 to start ECCA from Fund 177, which is designated for capital projects and comes from property taxes not split with the city school districts.
Commissioners asked both the Budget Committee and the school board why they wanted to change the funding source.
Budget Committee member Sharon Hannum, who offered the amendment this month to the school board’s request, said that from her standpoint the money should come from the same place agreed to during the previous budget year.
“I’m not sure the Budget Committee can do this,” Commissioner Brad Bowers said, offering an amendment to the commission that would have approved the appropriation from Fund 177, as the school board approved this budget year.
Board member Tom Stinnett said, “We established 177 to fix problems that were existing and take care of buildings that needed some work done to them. We did not create 177 to create a new school.”
Bowers responded, “This is not a new school. This is to do capital improvements on an existing school.”
“If the school board wants to spend it out of 177, that’s the school board’s prerogative,” Commissioner Dodd Crowe said.
Bowers’ amendment failed with a 10-11 vote, with Commissioners Mike Akard, Jared Anderson, Mike Caylor, Jim Hammontree, Jackie Hill, Tom Hood, Jeff Jopling, Joe McCauley, Steve Mikels, Brian Robbins and Stinnett voting “No.”
Discussion continued on a resolution to appropriate the money from Fund 141, and Sudhoff explained the board’s change.
All the money in Fund 177 for the budget year ending June 30 had been allocated when the district decided to move forward with ECCA, so it voted to use money from the fund balance of its general operating budget, Fund 141.
“We could not go to that capital fund because there were no funds available,” she explained, and the money requested at that time was from previously undesignated revenues in Fund 141, the fund balance.
Sudhoff and some commissioners explained the money would not be used for adding on to the building but improvements such as replacing bathroom fixtures designed for small children when that building served elementary grades. The school board has trimmed the amount requested by eliminating some cafeteria equipment and furniture from the total.
Commissioner Scott King said delaying action leaves current eighth graders in limbo. If the project moves forward, they will stay at the same building for ninth grade instead of going to Heritage High School when the new school year begins Aug. 2.
“It’s their money anyways, and we’re failing these kids out on the east side of town again, which is my district,” King said. “This is not fair to the kids or the people on that side of town.”
Bowers also voiced concern about the school board having to vote again if the commission did not approve the funding from Fund 177, as the school board had voted to do. He also noted that when the school board voted during the previous budget year to use the money from its fund balance, schools weren’t dealing with the impact of COVID-19. “I feel it’s a better use of our money to use it out of 177,” he said.
“I just wonder if we’re setting a precedent here in telling the school board how they can spend money, and I don’t want to to that,” Bowers said, “Whether I agree with them all the time or not, they need to live and die by their decisions just as County Commission does. I’d just like to see Eagleton get up and running, bottom line.”
Crowe also said he disagreed with how the Budget Committee handled the issue but did not want to risk delaying the project. Although he initially abstained during the final vote, Crowe changed to “Yes” in the end.
Board member Robbie Bennett also said he would vote “Yes” to avoid delay but did not like telling the school board which fund to use.
During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, Sudhoff again said that she does not believe the Budget Committee has the authority to change the fund in a request from the school board. “We all have to understand our authority,” she said.
Later Akard said the Budget Committee could simply deny a request.
“We don’t rubber stamp yeses on requests for money,” the commissioner said. “Our job to represent our taxpayers is to evaluate the need and the source of the funds. ... We might be opening up a Pandora’s box by challenging the legality of what fund we want to get it from when it’s just as easy for those five people to say no and it doesn’t come before the commission at all. Our goal should be to get the kids what they need rather than squabbling over which fund it comes out of.”