Commissioners: Trim schools’ budget or raise taxes
By Kerri Bartlett, Assistant Editor
County commissioners insisted April 8 that Williamson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney’s proposed budget for 2013-14 was wrought with “wants,” not “needs,” despite it reflecting an overall per-student decrease compared to that of the current fiscal year.
Looney proposed an operating budget of about $260.6 million, a 2.6 percent increase from last year. The student population for the 2013-14 fiscal year is expected to increase by 2.73 percent – about 900 students. The system currently serves about 33,000 students.
“We have to adjust accordingly,” said Looney.
Commissioners asked Looney to defend a broad swath of proposed expenditures, ranging from textbook purchases, to new teachers and services for special-needs students.
Commissioner Judy Herbert, District 3, questioned Looney why he plans to hire 12 school psychologists – one for each elementary school – which would add about $1 million to the budget.
Looney said the caseload of the current staff makes it impractical to meet a federally mandated timeline to test students for special education services.
Commissioner Ernie Williams, District 9, asked for a copy of school psychologists’ caseloads for review, emphasizing that “caseload” is a subjective term.
“A large caseload for one might not be for another,” he said.
“I am not sure that taxpayers want an increase in taxes over school psychologists,” Herbert said. “I still view this as ‘wants,’ not ‘needs.’”
Herbert also inquired about staff-development costs, fees for contracting outside services for special-needs students and an increase in textbook expenses compared to last year.
Looney said that the implementation of common core state standards has resulted in a change in the textbooks that students use.
“In order to align with the standards, we have to change the textbooks entirely,” he said.
Looney said that once the district moves in the direction of using digital textbooks, money could be saved.
“We are ready to move to digital text,” he said. “But the vendors are not quite ready yet.”
The county commission works diligently to keep property tax rates in Williamson County famously low. Combine that with best-in-state public schools, a robust local economy and pastoral scenery at virtually every turn, and it’s no wonder the county’s growth hardly slowed during the so-called “great recession.” This adds students to the school system, which necessitates new schools be built – high-capital projects that administrators are struggling to fund. Students in several schools spend at least part of their days in portable classrooms.
“Scales, Lipscomb, Brentwood Middle and Brentwood High are bursting at the seams,” Looney said. “I see a lot of roof tops being built in Spring Hill. Next year, all bets are off, and we will have to deal with the growth.”
“I still think that the budget can be cut,” said Herbert, District 3. “No one wants a tax increase. If we fund the budget the way it is right now, that’s what will happen.”
Looking ahead, there is approximately $5.5 million needed to balance the 2013-14 budget.
“Most of next year’s revenue has been accounted for and thus to fund the budget as presented, there will be an additional need for local funding,” said Leslie Holman, WCS chief financial officer.
Late last summer, the commission denied Looney’s request to fund the 2012-13 schools’ capital outlay expenses through a bond or note issuance, she said.
Looney cautioned the commission that doing so would create a shortfall come June 30, 2013.
“If we do this, don’t be surprised if we have to come back and ask for more money to fund the budget,” Looney said at the time.
At the April 8 meeting, County Mayor Rogers Anderson asked Looney to account for the funds used during the school year from the beginning fund balance.
“In my estimation, $5.5 million only makes up about 2.2 percent of the budget. I am sure that you can trim the budget by a few percentage points,” said Commissioner Brandon Ryan, District 11.
“If you are asking if two percent of the budget is fluff, my answer is no,” Looney said. “We would have had the money for the rest, if we hadn’t used money on capital funds. We robbed Peter to pay Paul.”
The WCS stands to be short of the three percent fund balance mandated by the state.
“Our fund balance from the previous year is typically a funding source, and we’ve had it each year,” Holman said. “It’s leftover money from the previous year, which we don’t have as much of this year. I don’t want to call it a deficit because it’s not.”
Looney said he understands the commissioners’ concerns.
“It’s an interesting process,” said Looney. “We are trying to balance protecting taxpayers and educating our kids. It’s a process, and we will see where the road takes us. We have a history of making it work.”
Williamson County Schools will conduct a second reading Tuesday, May 7 at 3:30 p.m. in the Auditorium of the County Administrative Complex.
Skip Anderson contributed to this story.
Posted on: 4/9/2013