School Budget Legerdemain

Mayor Ragsdale's new school budget will hardly "Celebrate Education!"

County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's spin on the budget he presented last week is that despite hard economic times he's increasing the county's commitment to education while cutting back in other areas.

On the surface, the numbers he tossed out support his claim. A $12 million increase to $370 million in public school funding exceeds the $11.3 million increase in the county's total budget to $640.7 million, meaning $700,000 in net reductions elsewhere. Ragsdale no doubt clamped down to realize these cuts via a hiring freeze and otherwise, while at the same time recommending a 2 percent pay raise for county employees (exclusive of school personnel) at a cost of $2 million.

However, the fact of the matter is that a big part of his ostensible savings were achieved by taking back from the school system with his left hand what he purported to give it with his right hand. Consider:

• The mayor's budget put the onus back on the school system to bear some $1.3 million in telecommunications costs that the county has been paying from its general fund for the past several years.

• The mayor's budget cut back funding of the Great Schools Partnership from $6.4 million to $3.8 million, thus leaving it to the school system to pay for birth-to-kindergarten and kindergarten intervention programs that the partnership initiated.

In addition to these shifts totaling $3.9 million, some of the $12 million in additional revenues shown for schools appears specious. Some $1.7 million that's classified as an "operating transfer" is really just a draw-down of the school system's own fund balance or reserve fund. An assumed $4.9 million increase in state funding has yet to be substantiated in whole or even part.

The only county funding increase that offsets the aforementioned cuts is an assumed $5.8 million growth in revenues derived from the county's long-standing allocations of property and sales taxes to schools. County Finance Director John Troyer says he believes the 3.2 percent property tax and 2.8 percent sales tax growth rates implicit in those assumptions are realistic despite the slumping economy. Yet in his budget address, Ragsdale asserted that, "As we prepared this year's budget, it was both challenging and frustrating to make our rapidly increasing expenses match our gradually decreasing revenues."

Both Ragsdale and the school board had been banking on a $9 million increase in state funding that Gov. Phil Bredesen had budgeted in January as the second stage of a revamping of the state's Basic Education Plan. Yet as the state's revenues deteriorated in subsequent months, the enhanced BEP funding got axed. So did an originally budgeted 2 percent pay raise for state employees that would have included public school teachers.

All that said, the school board is now confronting the worst budget bind it may have ever faced—though it's faced plenty of them. The $390.4 million budget that Interim Superintendent Roy Mullins submitted to the board last month contained $17.7 million of what were classified as "fixed increases." These included $4.4 million for staffing the new Hardin Valley High School, $1.6 million for reconstituting Austin-East and Fulton High School as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, $3.8 million in mandatory step (or years-of-service) raises for all school system employees plus $3 million for a 2 percent teacher pay raise. The list also included transportation, health insurance, and debt retirement cost increases.

The teacher pay raise is no longer required as it would have been if the state had mandated and funded it. But the school board will be hard-pressed not to give teachers a raise when all other county employees are getting one, and it would have to be paid for with purely local dollars.

Mullins' $390.4 million budget also contained $15.3 million in other recommended increases, including a pay raise for the rest of the school system's employees, textbook purchases, 49 new special-education positions, and, perhaps most crucially, 59 new positions to support what's known as a literacy initiative aimed at getting all students reading at grade level.

Ragsdale went out of his way to laud the reading initiative in his budget address, and it is considered integral to the school board's goal of goals: namely, achieving a systemwide 90 percent high school graduation rate (up from 78 percent at present) with 90 percent of them taking the ACT college entrance test and 90 percent of the test takers scoring 21 or higher, which is considered the threshold for college readiness.

With a lot less than the additional $12 million that Ragsdale has held out to meet all of these needs, the board of education is left in a well-nigh untenable position. I can't quarrel with Ragsdale's assertion that a period of economic stagflation is no time to be raising taxes, but the alternative is equally abhorrent and makes a mockery of the theme of his budget address, which was to "Celebrate Education!"