School Board work session
Hamilton County Board of Education members became frustrated Wednesday night with what they believe is a piecemeal approach to balancing next year’s budget.
Their main concern, they said, was over changes to administrators’ facilities plan, which now only partially would close Howard Middle School and 21st Century Academy.
* April 2: Special called meeting for administrators to present budget to school board
* April 14: Comprehensive facility report and discussion for board and citizen advisory panel
* April 29: School board adopts budget at special called meeting
Source: Hamilton County Department of Education
“I’m just not too thrilled about this proposal,” said board member Jeffrey Wilson during the work session at Tyner Academy. “Sometimes people want transformational change, they want something big. Especially when you tell them you’ve got a $20 million deficit.”
The plan to “grandfather in” rising Howard eighth-graders to the current Howard High, while moving the school’s six- and seventh-graders to Orchard Knob, Dalewood and East Lake middle schools, was suggested not to save money but to move the students to a higher-quality facility, Dr. Scales said.
Closing only the high school portion of 21st Century, instead of the whole school as previously was proposed, was more motivated by money, Dr. Scales said, since it is difficult to provide adequate resources to a high school with fewer than 200 students.
Wendy Jung, principal at 21st Century, said she was encouraged by the new proposal.
“I still recognize that they have to balance the budget, but I think it’s reassuring that they’re looking at options,” she said.
School system Chief Financial Officer Tommy Kranz also proposed adding East Lake as a feeder middle school for Battle and Brown academies, two downtown elementary magnet schools. The middle school’s curriculum would be redone to focus on multiple intelligences, closely mirroring the themes of the two elementary schools, Dr. Scales said.
School board member Everett Fairchild said that before administrators devise any more facility-related plans, the board needs to meet with the Hamilton County Commission and create a five-year plan.
“We need to stop these stopgap things if they don’t fit into our long-range plans,” he said. “Without a plan, I think we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Mr. Wilson said that “either we need to make the appropriate long-term decisions or we do nothing at all.”
The potential savings from the partial school closings would save only about $400,000, Mr. Kranz said. After reducing projected expenses and cutting administrative, teaching and central office positions is combined with higher-than-expected property tax revenue, the district’s original $20 million deficit still is about $1.5 million short of being balanced, he said.
Though the emotionally charged issue of closing small, underused schools tends to get the most public attention, any such measure falls far short of balancing the budget, Mr. Kranz said.
“Citizens lately are thinking there’s that one silver bullet,” he said. “There’s not.”
Dr. Scales said that if the board decides to move away from operating small schools, long a staple of the Hamilton County system, there will be a long-term savings in maintenance and personnel costs.
“If we close a building, it does not fix our immediate problem, but over time it does have a cumulative effect,” he said.
In order to completely balance the remaining budget shortfall, Mr. Kranz said, board members could vote to use money from the district’s fund balance, look at further reducing personnel or buildings, or find an outside funding source to help pay for the overhead of maintaining small schools.
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...