In a special called meeting Monday night, school board members voted 4-3 against a motion to pass the budget after a lengthy discussion over how they were said to match up with Tennessee’s suggested spending formula for public schools.
During a May 13 meeting, board members passed a resolution that asked business office manager Rick Smith to create a side-by-side comparison of the proposed budget and the Basic Education Program formula.
The May meeting was the first since Smith and Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel presented the board with its first look at the proposals on April 29. Smith said then the $69,310,500 general purpose school fund budget represented one of the most “challenging” budgets he has ever done.
However, board member Chris Turner took issue with the budget because he said at the time he believed the school system had not come up with a budget matching the state funding formula.
Citing this year’s “Tennessee Basic Education Blue Book,” a state-issued booklet which explains the formula, he gave various examples of how the formula did not provide an exact match for the school system’s budget.
Turner said he was concerned money was being taken away from certain funding categories like one for personnel and put toward items like capital projects. He wants the school system to “be more transparent about where priorities lie” by comparing the budget and the state BEP formula.
Smith at the time declared doing so to be “a huge, labor-intensive task,” and some board members defended the budget.
Board member Rodney Dillard pointed out the budget differing from the BEP was nothing new and cited the example of the system employing more school nurses than allowed for in the BEP formula.
That statement led to a substitute motion to delay a final vote on the budget and take a closer look at how it compares to the state formula. The motion passed 4-2.
Board Chair Vicki Beaty, Nicholas Lillios, Charlie Rose and Turner voted in favor, and Rodney Dillard and Troy Weathers voted against. Board member Christy Critchfield was absent.
On Monday, board members remained divided on the issue of whether or not the budget should be closely aligned with the state’s funding formula.
Using words like “outdated” and “antiquated,” Smith described the BEP formula to those in attendance. He said the formula does not account for all the school system’s needs.
Smith then described the process he went through to “crosswalk” the budget and the BEP.
At one point, he emailed Maryanne Durski, the executive director of the Tennessee Department of Education’s Office of Local Finance, for guidance. He shared her response at the meeting.
“This is a tough one,” Durski wrote. “You are absolutely right that there is not an apples-to-apples comparison to the BEP funding sheet and your budget.”
She then listed some suggestions for ways Smith could meet the board’s request. Those suggestions included making lists of items and positions that were part of the local school system budget — but not the BEP — and listing all revenue sources.
“They need to remember that the BEP is a funding formula, not a spending plan, and that each board has the flexibility to budget as it chooses in the best interest of each individual school district,” Durski wrote.
Smith said the state official agreed with his perception the budget could not necessarily be matched up with the BEP formula. He then presented what he had been able to compile.
Comparing the school system’s general purpose budget for the 2014-15 year with the BEP for the same year, he handed out a 22-page document that listed line items from the budget and the formula side-by-side.
While the dollar amounts for the school system’s budget were listed throughout the document, the adjoining columns for BEP funding sometimes had zeroes and question marks listed where dollar amounts could have gone.
Smith pointed out that some of what the school system had in its budget was simply not included in the BEP formula.
Each page of the document compared the budget amount with the BEP formula’s suggested amounts. In most cases, the budget amounts were larger than the BEP formula amounts for the same categories, which he cited as being further proof the comparisons were not equal.
“It’s the best that I know how,” Smith said.
Beaty reminded everyone of the need to “behave in a respectful and professional manner” before opening the floor up for comment on Smith’s presentation.
McDaniel was the first to speak. He said he and his staff “worked hard on the budget this year,” and wanted to “present a balanced budget.”
Turner said he and Smith were not on the same page as far as what had been requested.
He said he had mainly wanted to see how the “priorities” of the budget matched up with the BEP rather than trying to “assign the items into buckets.”
However, Turner had his own documents to share with the board, including a “Gap Analysis” that showed the differences between the budget and the BEP formula. While many of the items on the list of “gaps” showed the school system was providing more local funding in certain categories than the BEP dictated, the capital outlay category showed what Turner presented as a deficit.
Turner maintained the school system was spending $6,249,796 less than the BEP dictated it should.
“I think this is where the board has got to start some real discussions,” he said.
As Turner continued to hand out six pages of charts he made showing various comparisons, Smith interrupted on four different occasions to correct him on how the funds should best be categorized. Smith handed out four more pages of his own that had charts he used to argue his own points.
Amid the corrections from Smith, Turner reiterated that he wanted to focus on “priorities” and was “painting with a broad brush.”
Smith shared figures from several school systems statewide to show that many were spending less on capital outlay than other categories. For example, he said Anderson County’s most recent budget was $30,400 for the year, and counties like Murray and Rutherford had spent nothing.
“I don’t think our capital outlay is out of line at all,” Smith said.
Other school board members joined the discussion.
At one point, someone began to try to loudly talk over someone else, and Beaty, trying to call the meeting back to order, pounded her wooden gavel against its base so hard that the cylindrical head of the gavel flew off its handle.
Those heated discussions led to a pointed question by one board member.
“What does the board want to do here?” Weathers asked.
Lillios said he wanted to see the school system create a plan of savings for future capital projects because of the schools that have already been in need of repair.
He stressed it should be a larger portion of the budget to plan ahead for future problems.
“There’s not going to be a conclusion tonight,” Rose said.
Rose made a motion to request information from McDaniel and the central office staff that included enrollment numbers dating back to 2006 and information on the number of employees paid by the school system and what each of those people do.
Board member Christy Critchfield asked why he wanted that information and if it was so he could look at ways to eliminate certain positions.
“Are you going to pick and choose?” she asked. “That is Mr. McDaniel’s job.”
He said the information was needed in order for him to make sure money was being spent well and that all the positions were needed, saying the board could “support” and “fight for” the amount of money set aside for personnel if the budget was using the system’s money in the best way.
“I’m not interested in cutting anybody’s job,” Rose said.
All voted in favor of Rose’s motion to request the information, except for Critchfield.
Saying she did not want to see a vote on the budget delayed any further, she proposed the board pass the school system’s central cafeteria fund budget, general purpose school fund budget and capital outlay budget for the 2014-15 year.
Critchfield, Dillard and Weathers voted for the budgets’ passage, and Rose, Lillios, Beaty and Turner voted against.
After some discussion of when the information requested by Rose could be made available, board members made plans to hold another special called meeting on Wednesday at 3 p.m.
McDaniel told the board he had received a call from Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis earlier that day, and Davis had asked when the school system would be ready to present its budget. McDaniel said he told Davis it would depend on the board’s decision.