Kingsport school officials warn of dire effects of funding shortage

Rick Wagner • May 22, 2013 at 8:07 AM

KINGSPORT — As city school officials await the fate of an operational funding increase request to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, their talk is of dire consequences if the request is not granted.

In addition, Superintendent of Schools Lyle Ailshie said a change in the way capital project bond funds may be allocated also may negatively impact the school system next school year.

“They’re struggling, which is some good news,” Ailshie said after a Thursday BMA work session.

But a decision, he said, likely will come at a 3:30 p.m. meeting Monday at city hall after further discussions among school officials, Mayor Dennis Phillips and City Manager John Campbell.

The board had asked the city for $1.8 million in additional city funding, but Ailshie said that the Tennessee Basic Education funding may come in $200,000 less than expected, which would raise the shortfall to about $2 million.

An earlier draft had a $3.2 million shortfall between revenues and expenditures, although the school board never voted on that budget.

The city for the current year appropriated about $9.8 million to the operational budget that overall would be about $65.5 million.

“I am really concerned,” Ailshie said. Campbell has said the school system in the past few years has received about $2 million in recurring funding, but Ailshie and board members said they fear even a $1 million or slightly greater increase would be treading water.

“How much more can we do?” Phillips said Friday, before scheduled meetings with school system officials over the weekend and Monday morning, before what Phillips called Monday afternoon’s “D-Day” decision on the school budget. “That’s a substantial increase in one year for the maintenance of effort.”

City officials Thursday discussed adding some fees to get revenue, but the amounts generated would fall far short of what the school system is seeking.

Some of the increases would go to replace what were known as academic coaches — who help teachers — that were taken out of the budget after grant funding for the positions ended. Phillips said Tennessee and federal funding losses put pressure on local governments to pick up funding.

“I understand it’s an election year, and it’s difficult for a politician to go on record saying raise taxes,” BOE member Andy King said of the Tuesday, May 21, city election for which early voting ended Thursday.

Phillips said he sees no support for a property tax increase and said he sometimes wishes the school board had taxing authority.

The BMA has contested races for mayor and three alderman seats. On the BOE, King, an appointee to finish an unexpired term, and first-term member Carrie Upshaw are unopposed.

If the school system took out all new programs and other new expenditures totaling about $700,000, that still would leave a $1.1 to $1.3 million shortfall, Ailshie said.

“What in the world are we going to do if we can’t at least hold our own?” Ailshie asked. Cooper said “world class” is difficult without some additional funding.

And Upshaw said the quality of the education system affects all city residents, not just those with children, because it helps drive economic development jobs, retail and a general quality of life.

As for capital bonds, Ailshie said the city is not going to evenly split $3.4 million over the next two years, instead providing $1 million for 2013-14 and the rest for 2014-15.

“Our concern is ... we think it’s a bad precedent to start doing two-year (capital) budgets at a time,” Phillip said.

Ailshie said the change would require the board to redo its capital plan that had been more than $1.5 million the first year and about $1.8 million the second.

The first year includes $500,000 in technology money and the second year $400,000, for wireless devices needed for the PARCC or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing in math and English/language arts for the Common Core standards starting in 2014-15. Other items include roof replacements for schools.

“Technology is as much about this PARCC assessment as anything else,” Ailshie said.

Phillips said the underlying question is how much technology can the city afford for the schools.

On the bright said, he said the purchase of two new school buses at about $120,000 each is being shifted to another funding source, which will open up some capital money.

The BOE likely will have a called meeting to deal with the budget but probably not the week of May 20, Ailshie said. He said the BOE likely would vote on a final budget June 6.

On a related matter, BOE member Susan Lodal asked Ailshie to work with his staff to come up with an answer for Alderman John Clark, who recently asked about what measures the school system uses to show it is “world class.” Lodal said there are so many measures, it is difficult to narrow them.

“We’re starting that already,” Ailshie said. “It’s a legitimate question.”

Aside from testing measures, BOE President Randy Montgomery said there are practical things, such as the variety of course offerings.

He and Lodal also lamented the U.S. News & World Report high school rankings, in which Kingsport’s Dobyns-Bennett High School didn’t make a national or state ranking like University School, Science Hill and Sullivan South high schools.

City school officials said the reason is that about 250 seventh- or eighth-grade students, or about 40 percent, take algebra I and test proficient in it before high school. The magazine ranking only measures students who test proficient in algebra I in high school.

Ailshie said that some other neighboring systems have algebra I in middle schools, but not to the same degree as the city. In addition, he said some, including Johnson City where Science Hill operates, do not offer algebra I until high school.

ACT scores are another measure, but not all states are like Tennessee, which requires all juniors to take the college readiness exam. In states where only college-bound students take the ACT, the scores tend to be higher.

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