Kingsport aldermen cool to school board's funding request

Rick Wagner • Apr 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — The city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen greeted the Board of Education’s 2009-10 funding request with less than open arms during a BMA work session Monday.

Not only did Kingsport officials balk at a proposal for a more than $1 million increase in recurring operational budget and $710,000 in one-time appropriations, they also discussed taking away more than $300,000 in Eastman Chemical Co. “plan of services” funds from the school system.

That money, which by an expired legal agreement comes from property tax revenues from annexation of Eastman’s Long Island property six years ago, is used in an almost $1.4 million special projects fund and is projected at about $360,000 next year.

Vice Mayor Larry Munsey said the city no longer had to give that “Eastman” money to the school system and asked City Manager John Campbell to see if it is legal for proposed use for a phone system replacement and upgrade, which Superintendent Richard Kitzmiller said was an allowable use.

“There is no new money without raising taxes or cutting services,” Mayor Dennis Phillips said at the end of the BOE presentation. “The city manager and (School System Finance Director) David (Frye) are going to have to sit down and fine-tune this.”

On the other hand, Alderman Jantry Shupe asked why teachers were not getting the customary cost-of-living raise on top of the annual step increases costing $300,000. Kitzmiller said 1 percent COLAs would have cost another $300,000.

The school board is asking for a city operations budget appropriation of almost $9.77 million, up from the current $8.7 million, with another $710,000 in one-time capital expenditures. Debt service payments under the BOE request would go up $175,000 to fund a half year of new debt in the amount of $3.5 million.

The general purpose fund, where city dollars go, would increase from almost $59.047 million to $59.071 million, while the self-supporting food service fund would go slightly down to $2.9 million, the federal projects budget would go from $3.5 million to $5 million — including about $1.25 million in federal economic stimulus money — and the special projects fund would go from about $1.3 million to $1.4 million.

Cuts include four high school teacher positions costing $228,000 to be absorbed into a proposed alternative high school program to cost $300,000 but projected to increase enrollment, as well as $160,000 in Central Office and support staff position cuts,

Jefferson Elementary School fourth-grader Michael Bennett asked the BMA to grant the BOE funding request so the Spanish program could remain in the elementary schools.

An earlier BOE budget draft would have cut six related arts Spanish teachers at the elementary level at a savings of more than $343,200 a year. Alderwoman Valerie Joh said parents have told her the program is worth keeping.

“A lot of kids would be heartbroken if these Spanish classes are gone,” Michael said, to which Phillips responded: “It’s always tough to talk the money you have versus the money requested.”

Alderman Pat Shull said city leaders are foolish to think they can fund projects coming and going and not raise taxes, although doing so during a recession when people have lost jobs is not palatable. Alderman Ken Marsh said the city already has allocated money the BOE seeks toward the Higher Education Center, V.O. Dobbins Community Center and other projects.

The BMA and BOE also differed in recollections of a November 2006 meeting about the new John Adams Elementary to open this fall. Marsh said he thought Kitzmiller agreed the school system could absorb the operational costs of the new school — depending on how state revenue was — but BOE members said that was not their understanding, even though Marsh read from meeting minutes.

Projections in the BOE-proposed budget are that Adams will require about $1.14 million to operate, assuming 240 students — 150 existing in the system and 90 new annexed or tuition students — for an operating deficit of $567,250, close to a 2006 projection of a $512,000 deficit with 200 students.

Marsh also questioned plans to spend $550,000 to upgrade the phone system for the schools. Instead, he said, teachers could simply be forced use their personal cell phones.

“Everybody living and breathing is carrying a cell phone,” Marsh said.

Vice Mayor Ben Mallicote called that idea unreasonable and dangerous because of 911 response needed, and school officials said cell phones don’t have service throughout school buildings.

“I don’t want to disrupt 2,000 students to get a message to one student,” Kitzmiller said of using intercoms, adding that the new phone switches coming with the system would help identify and stop computer viruses and worms.

The system also would be used for computer and video hookups for virtual classrooms.

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