Wise County school officials stunned by proposed cuts

Mike Still • May 15, 2019 at 11:24 AM

WISE — Wise County school officials on Tuesday took news of actual and proposed county budget cuts with a mix of anger and disbelief.

The school board met one day after the board of supervisors approved $400,000 in cuts to the last quarter of this year’s school budget and put up for public hearing in June a budget that cuts the schools’ budget request by another $944,000 for fiscal year 2020.

“The one thought that I had today was that if our goal was to race to the bottom, we’re doing just that,” Superintendent Greg Mullins told school board members during his report on the county budgetary news. “We will have the distinction of being the lowest per-pupil allocation in the state.”

County Administrator Mike Hatfield and County Treasurer Delores Wilson delivered their own budget news to county supervisors on Monday night: a $950,000 revenue shortfall for the rest of the current fiscal year and an anticipated $1.14 million tax revenue shortfall for the next fiscal year.

In a budget submitted to the supervisors in April, the school board requested level funding from the current year of $11.87 million — the local share of a total $60.41 million budget.

Mullins said the proposed 2020 county budget could hurt the school system’s recruitment and retention of teachers as well as changing plans for staff and teaching paraprofessionals’ pay increases and absorbing an employee insurance increase.

Mullins said the county budget actions surprised him after several weeks of budget discussions with Hatfield and county officials.

Calling the 2020 budget plan “draconian measures,” Mullins said he hoped a final budget would not follow the proposal because “it would have a devastating effect.”

Mullins said he and division staff have begun looking at ways to revise the budget in case the proposal becomes final after the supervisors hold a public hearing at their June 13 meeting.

Mullins acknowledged that the school budget was “a little easier” for the county to cut because of its size compared to other county departments. He said he understood budgetary pressures on the county as well.

“I hope we can arrive at a place where we can help the county move forward without negatively affecting how we can help the county,” Mullins said.

School board member Herbert Shortt asked how the immediate $400,000 cut will affect existing school capital projects. Mullins said some projects have already been completed and some others have begun. The school system would still be committed to projects in progress, he added.

Mullins said the board should expect several meetings to make decisions on the budget as his staff works on revisions.

“We worked on this (budget) without anyone warning us this bombshell was coming,” school board member John Graham said. “Why didn’t someone who supposedly is our friend tell us this was coming?”

Mullins said that Hatfield told him it was his intent to ask the supervisors to consider level funding for the schools.

“These cuts are like black ice,” said school board Chairman Larry Greear. “We’re losing traction.”

Graham said the cuts undercut the county’s success because “we’ve got to have a core of education.”

“Our (student test) scores are at the top, and we’re not paying our people to get them there,” Graham said. “How embarrassing, how embarrassing.”

Mullins said he would keep talking with county supervisors while preparing budget options for a final county budget.