“I think that would be a sad decision,” said Alderwoman Valerie Joh. “I think it’s a terrible thing when we lose ground in our schools.”
The Board of Mayor and Aldermen continued to wrangle with the 2014 budget Tuesday night — the third such meeting in the past eight days. Kingsport’s budget requires a public hearing and two votes by the BMA — scheduled for the June regular meetings — and must be approved by June 30.
The new fiscal year begins July 1.
Last week, City Manager John Campbell presented his proposed budget for 2014, one that is balanced with no property tax increase, but with a three percent hike in the water and sewer rates for all customers. Six new positions were included in the budget along with pay raises and step increases for current employees.
The main sticking point, and something that has been discussed for more than a week now, has been how much additional operating funds, if any, to give to the school system. KCS officials have requested an additional $1.8 million of the city, which would push the yearly allocation to the school system from $9.8 million to $11.6 million.
A secondary issue among the BMA has been the desire to increase the city’s $600,000 annual paving fund by at least $400,000.
And to add insult to injury, KCS officials learned last week they would receive $200,000 less from the state than previously thought.
Though Campbell offered no recommendation on the school funding issue last week, he did come up with a list of ideas for how the city could generate additional revenue for its paving fund and KCS, with ideas ranging from cutting positions, eliminating or delaying raises and imposing new fees, such as a natural gas franchise fee and a garbage collection fee.
Those ideas were fine-tuned into four options by Monday’s meeting — two options allocated more than $400,000 to schools, $200,000 to paving and a varying amount for equipment, but were made through cuts to the budget and new fees. Two other options — through cuts alone — just allocated a boost to paving.
“Option 4 is the one I like,” Mayor Dennis Phillips said. Option 4 increased paving by $400,000 and provided no additional funds for KCS. “I’ve heard complaints we’re pushing the envelope on fees. This is a big change when adding substantial fees and I think we need more planning than just two or three days.”
Alderman John Clark called the decision of allocating more funds to the school system a difficult one without having a future view of where the system is heading.
“The next (BMA) should focus on (the future view) moving forward. Without that, it’s more of a year to year issue we’re dealing with,” Clark said. “I think we’re over-complicating the process without a plan and metrics in place. If we had a plan with metrics, it could help us determine how we should spend our limited funds.
“I’m struggling with, does the school system deserve the $1.8 million?
The problem with planning too far in advance is the state — which provides $24.5 million of the school system’s budget — typically waits until January before announcing funding levels, Campbell said.
“We have trends and enough experience to make a projection of what it would be?” Clark asked. “Having a plan with a goal in place and accountability would steer us in the right direction.”
The BMA has indicated a property tax increase is off the table next year. With that in mind, Phillips said the only choice is to raise fees or forgo salary increases.
Delaying pay raises and step increases for city employees for six months would save nearly $570,000; eliminating them entirely would save $1.1 million. On the school system side, its budget has more than $1.1 million for pay raises and step increases.
“If we cut everyone’s raises, I don’t think that’s a comfortable option,” Phillips said. “There’s just no money, short of raising fees, taxes.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Lyle Ailshie gave a passionate plea for the additional funds, saying he did not come before the BMA with an inflated request.
“Some think the school system is requesting more than it’s asking for. For this budget, to my knowledge, there is not anything in there we don’t need,” Ailshie said. “We are so behind on technology, we don’t have a chance of catching up. (In the 2014-2015 school year) every child in this system will have to take an online assessment. We don’t have the technology to do it. We’re not even close to staying cutting edge.”
Ailshie repeated a similar concern Board of Education members have voiced: If the school system cannot get some funds, it won’t have a chance of meeting current metrics and goals.
“I know it’s a lot of money and I wish I didn’t have to ask for it,” Ailshie said.
Over the past five years, KCS has requested an additional $1.4 million to $2.2 million from the city each year. Not including this year, the city has increased its maintenance of effort to the school system by just over $1 million, along with $850,000 in one-time money.
Near the end of the meeting, Clark asked Ailshie if the school system would come back next year and ask for another $1.8 million or $2 million.
“To do the things in our goals, to really be world-class, it will be some number,” Ailshie said.
Phillips said as it stands right now, the BMA is going into Tuesday’s meeting with a budget that includes no increase for schools. To comply with state law, the proposed budget has to be advertised in the newspaper with the deadline for submission being Tuesday.
However, changes to the budget could be made prior to the BMA voting on it in June.
“If someone comes up with a light bulb, please turn it on,” Phillips said.
Campbell concluded the discussion by saying he had thought of a couple of revenue ideas over the weekend, but would need to speak with Ailshie first before announcing them.