The budget committee of the Cumberland County Board of Education recommended a budget that seeks no new recurring funding from Cumberland County. However, the committee did include a list of capital projects and purchases it would seek additional funding to support. 

“We’ve gotten some money the last several years for specific capital projects,” Josh Stone, 4th District representative, told the committee Wednesday afternoon. “That has been our most successful strategy.

The projects include:

•$150,000 for updates at Stone Memorial High School to comply with findings of an Office of Civil Rights audit that said the school’s sidewalks and ramps do not meet accessibility standards

•$150,000 to construct a new Transition Academy on the campus of The Phoenix School, providing an apartment-type classroom for students to learn and practice independent living skills. It would also free up space on the campus to establish an alternative school program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade

•$95,000 to purchase a new school bus

Stone said, “I would say these projects are above a ‘want,’ but they’re not as big a need as what’s in the budget.”

Director of Schools Janet Graham explained the school system had budgeted $20,000 for the updates at SMHS and had been granted an extension to complete that work. 

“We looked at those as some big, basic needs we have that would not be recurring expenses,” Graham said. 

Stace Karge, 9th District representative, wondered about the possibility of asking the county for additional funds to support requests for increased library supplies, raising coaching supplements or supporting student competitions.

“It’s worth asking,” she said.

Stone said his conversations with county leaders indicated it might be a tough budget year for additional requests.

State law allows the county to fund one-time projects without increasing the county’s required minimum funding. Maintenance of effort rules do not allow counties to reduce funding for the school system.

Stone suggested the board could send a proposed budget with the capital projects as an additional request.

“We plead with them and explain to them,” Stone said. “We can’t pay for any of these things in our budget.”

If included in the budget and the requests were denied, the school system would have to rework its budget and resubmit to the county.

Tony Brock, 5th District representative, said he supported the proposed budget.

“It’s friendly to the teachers and the workers,” he said. “There’s a nice little raise in there.”

Graham said, “We’re trying to take care of our people.”

Stone moved to approve the budget and the prioritized list of additional projects, supported by Brock. The motion was unanimously approved.

 

Funding Drops

The latest estimate of state education funding for Cumberland County dropped by $121,000.

“In a matter of a few minutes, we had a different budget,” schools Chief Financial Officer Kacee Harris told the committee.

The budget still keeps a recommended 2.5% raise for all school personnel, maintenance projects and a planned renovation at Martin Elementary, the third year of a one-to-one technology initiative, and $600,000 to purchase new reading and language arts textbooks — about half the expected cost.

The reduced funding is due to a decrease in average daily membership — the number of students enrolled in the school system. 

Overall, the school system shows a decline of 26 students over last year. However, special populations have also dropped significantly, with 99 less students reported as enrolled in Career and Technical Education programs and 128 fewer students receiving special education services.

Harris said staff were going back through enrollment information to ensure each student is properly accounted for and checking for errors in coding that could have impacted the numbers for those programs.

But with another month of expenses to review, Harris said she was able to make better year-end projections in several categories of the budget. The budget will use about $2.64 million of the estimated $4.39 million fund balance, leaving $1.74 million in reserves.

The school system must reserve 3% of its budget to be approved by the state finance office. The budget meets that number with $638 to spare.

 

New Personnel

The budget does include 5.5 new positions: a new teacher and assistant for 3-year-old students identified for special education services; a new special education speech pathologist assistant to serve the growing number of students needing services; an additional half-time English as a Second Language teacher to serve a growing population of students; and a new alternative school teacher and assistant to serve kindergarten to fifth-grade students.

Harris said the teacher and assistant to serve 3-year-old students is required by state law, though there was no state funding to support those positions.

“That’s an unfunded state mandate,” she told the committee.

The school system must also maintain student-teacher ratios in English as a Second Language and speech pathology. However, hiring an additional speech pathology assistant may provide some savings in contracted services. The school system also continues to seek a certified speech pathologist — a position open for two years — which would also reduce the services they had to contract to outside vendors.

The alternative school teacher and assistant are not mandated hires, but Graham said those were positions teachers and administrators had asked to add for several years.

“We can’t house K-5 students at the alternative school,” Graham said. “They stay at their school.”

Jim Inman, 1st District representative and a retired teacher and administrator, said, “And they keep disrupting the classroom.”

Some schools place students in in-school suspension, but that required pulling a teaching assistant from other duties, like small-group instruction and intervention. 

“It’s a domino effect,” Inman said.

Graham added, “And sometimes they’re sent home. They can be suspended.”

 

Other Budget Requests

The committee discussed several budget requests that were not included in the budget, including additional funding for the school libraries, increases to coaching supplements, and additional funds to support national competition participation.

Harris cautioned the committee that, should they wish to fund the requests, she also needed suggestions on what to cut in the proposed budget.

Stone said the requests had gone through the staff and the requests hadn’t been included.

“I take that to mean you, the staff, think what’s in this budget is what’s most important,” Stone said.

Harris said, “Our priorities, as we see them, are in the budget.”

But the items brought to the committee were specific requests brought up by members of the board or specific requests to “please take this to the budget committee.”

Brock said he is uncomfortable spending more when the school system was seeing reduced funding.

“Where’s the money going to come from without taking it from somewhere else?” he asked. “I don’t know where I would pull it from.”

The budget includes $16 per student for library books. The request for $1 more per student for books and 50 cents per student for library supplies would require $10,800. 

A 2% increase in coaching supplements would require $6,700, while a 3% increase would require $10,026.

The budget includes $7,500 to support students attending national competitions. The board has already awarded all of those funds for the 2018-’19 school year. Graham said there had been no further requests for funding in May.

Stone said he would love to give coaches an increase since those supplements had not increased in many years.

“But where does it come from?” he asked.

He added that would become a recurring cost.

Karge asked if there are grants to help with library purchases. Several schools seek grants to support literacy initiatives, such as literacy grants from Dollar General and grants from Volunteer Energy Cooperative’s VECustomer’s Share program and the CSW Charitable Foundation.

“That breaks my heart,” Karge said. “I’d love nothing more than to help our libraries.”

But, she asked, “Where do you cut?”

Graham said, “That’s the challenge.”

Robert Safdie, 2nd District representative, questioned the academic need for the two Safe Schools counselors added last year and two instructional coaching positions added several years before. 

A portion of the counselors salary is paid through recurring grant funds for school safety. The instructional coaches are paid through federal funding. The school system reduced the amount it spent on sending teachers to professional development conferences to hire English/language arts and math instructional coaches who work directly with teachers throughout the year.

Rebecca Wood, chief academic officer, said she is responsible for evaluating the coaches. She said data from surveys found teachers are thankful to have those resources available.

“Their sole job is to help teachers plan, assess, find resources and model strategies,” she said.

 

The budget will go before the full board at a special-called meeting June 4 at 6 p.m. The school system is scheduled to present its budget to the budget committee of the Cumberland County Commission June 6 at 4:30 p.m.

 

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.