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Sullivan County BOE may have to consider teacher layoffs

Rick Wagner • May 3, 2013 at 11:27 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s school board got a crash course in budget revenues 101 during a half-day work session Saturday morning.

But the class project and end-of-course testing will begin next month at a May 11 meeting, where the board is to start wrangling with the expenditures in the 2013-14 budget while staying inside revenue constraints.

Officials said it might include not just elimination of teaching positions where employees are reassigned but some layoffs, as well as moving many instruction aides from full-time to part-time status.

The federally funded instructional aides will be affected by federal sequestration, Director of Schools Jubal Yennie said, as will ROTC or reserve officer training corps funding eventually.

At the same time, however, Board of Education members and Yennie said they didn’t want to lose curriculum along the way and are looking to expand career technical education offerings.

“The low-hanging fruit is not on the ground and we’re shimmying up the tree,” Yennie said of potential cost savings. He has recommended school closings and consolidations to help cut costs, but the board has delayed action on his idea.

Finance Director Leslie Bonner said the “big three” revenue streams for the county’s budget are projected to fall $1,206,455 from 2012-13 to 2013-14. The three make up 87 percent of the system’s revenue stream and are dependent on either student enrollment or attendance.

“So we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Bonner said.

The three are the Basic Education Program, Tennessee funding based on average daily membership, county property taxes and local option sales tax, both funding streams based on average daily attendance.

For 2013-14, BEP revenues are projected to fall $666,000 to $38.468 million, property tax revenue to go down by $243,391 to $23.965 million and local option sales tax to fall $297,064 to $11.894 million.

From 1995-96 to 2011-12, Sullivan County’s enrollment has dropped from 16,529 or 59.79 percent of the students in Sullivan County to 12,769 or 50.94 percent of the students, while Kingsport and Bristol have grown. Current county enrollment is about 10,400 for K-12 and 10,600 for pre-K-12, Yennie said. The number of students in all three systems during that period fell from 27,645 to 25,114, a drop of 2,531.

“That’s why we’re trying to find a long-term solution not a short-term fix,” BOE member Robyn Ivester said.

Since the system borrowed $2.3 million from its unrestricted reserves for the current budget and is projecting a $1.2 million revenue reduction, Yennie and Bonner said that could be a beginning shortfall of $4.5 million not accounting for employee raises, expected increases in health insurance costs Jan. 1, 2014, the effects of the federal Affordable Healthcare program that will require employees working the equivalent of six hours a day to receive health coverage or employers face a penalty and the employees be forced to a federal insurance program.

On top of that, Bonner said the Jan. 1, 2012, health insurance increase adds $430,000 to the 2013-14 budget right off the bat.

On the plus side, Bonner said it looks like the system may end the fiscal year June 30 with $800,000 that can go back into reserves, which the state recommends remain at least 3 percent of the total budget, which for 2013-14 as amended is $87.2 million. Bonner gave no estimate for 2013-14 because the “other” category that was almost $11.7 million or 14 percent of the budget in 2012-13 was not listed for 2013-14.

Potential answers to avoid or minimize layoffs or curriculum cuts include teachers serving two high schools, getting a stipend for planning time after school, as well as two part-time teachers without benefits filling one full-time slot, Yennie and BOE members said.

But especially at the high school level, Yennie said, layoffs may be coming.

BOE member Randall Jones said a retirement incentive for high school teachers might be an answer.

Chairman Dan Wells said the board must look at more closely aligning the high schools to more equitable student-teacher ratios.

“We’re talking ones to fives, not 10s to 20s,” Yennie said of teacher layoffs.

As county school system enrollment begins to stabilize into a slower loss pattern, BOE Vice Chairman Jack Bales said he’s afraid such cuts are inevitable since about 80 percent of the budget is personnel.

“This is on our doorstep,” Bales said.

Ivester suggested online courses could replace smaller traditional classes.

To boost enrollment and thus revenue, BOE member Todd Broughton suggested beefing up career technical offering, especially in areas such as welding and masonry and through dual enrolment and articulation programs with Northeast State Community College.

“You can only cut so far and then you cut into the quick,” Broughton said.

Yennie said this could be an opportune time for CTE expansion and collaboration with Northeast since interest for borrowing money for capital projects is low.

“Sullivan County’s DNA is manufacturing,” Yennie said.

BOE member Jerry Greene said the system should look at Wise County, Va.’s, consolidated CTE program. BOE member Todd Broughton said he agreed that CTE consolidation was a good idea but said he opposes Yennie’s proposed consolidation of Sullivan North and South high schools into one school, with the other building to serve as a middle school and South zone middle schools to close.

The board has put off a vote on that until at least October.

Yennie said that Sullivan Central’s new emergency medical technician program has proven popular and is being emulated by other area school systems seeking start-up federal grant money.

Jones asked for a list of all professional employees not assigned students, including instructional or academic coaches who help teachers and some interventionists. Yennie said principals believe the coaches have helped in improving standardized test scores.

Jones also asked for consideration of contracting out cleaning, mowing and landscaping services, although he added, “I’m not looking to take somebody’s job.”

He also asked for a list of employees and programs not required and not classroom oriented, including the voluntary driver’s education program that has two teachers to serve four high schools.

Yennie said he’s looking at cuts “furthest away from the classroom.”

Broughton also asked for Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee’s budget numbers. The grades 6-7 schools, expanding to 6-8 this fall, is a joint effort of the county and Kingsport school systems partly funded by a two-year grant that runs out at the end of next school year.

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