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Education Funding in Blount County

07/06/2011
by

The following is a response to letters in The Daily Times:

 

July 5, 2011
The Daily Times
P.O. Box 9740
Maryville, TN. 37802-9740

Sir,

The headline of the Times on Saturday, June 25, 2011, “Tax Hike Veto Overridden”,
leads one to further investigate the dynamics driving the budget in Blount County. Some
commissioners, and self-ascribed sound fiscal policy virtuoso’s from the public, deem
it right to continue to reduce government funding of services yet these same pseudo-
experts believe the same level of services can be provided at the same level of funding.
They refuse to allow facts to enter their sphere of distorted data. The usual opinion page
contributors offers their views based on faulty data and not what is needed to provide the
level of services they require and would quickly criticize the agency that did not provide
those services. The discussion must begin with facts, something conspicuously absent
in the letters to the editor since this vote. Education is the biggest piece of the budget
pie, and one could argue it is the most important, so one should begin there.

To see a snapshot of where the county is at this moment in time, one need look no
further than the picture that accompanies the article. On the one hand, we see a Mayor
that wants to don blinders and take the county back to the days of Sam Houston when
teachers were not paid a living wage. Then we see a man that has exhibited courage
and confronted the county’s financial situation in a reasoned and responsible manner.
One seeks to solve the problem while the other would exacerbate it. Irresponsible
commissions got the county in this mess but it is going to take a courageous and
dedicated commission to get us out of it. Mark Twain once said, “I was seldom able
to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one”. Over the past several budget
cycles there have been opportunities to prepare for this coming storm yet, like Twain,
commissioners failed to see them until they passed. Is this what the citizens of Blount
County expect?

One might say the county simply can’t afford to spend more or increase revenues in
a time of economic crisis. Another says public employees, especially teachers, have
sacrificed enough already. Both make valid points but one must ask if the facts support
one position over the other. Education funding takes a very large piece of the county
budget. It does not however take $78 million out of the county budget. That makes for
good press but does not tell the whole story behind school funding.

The state will provide a projected $43.9 million through BEP funding for the FY12 year
of which approximately $19.8 million is for teacher salaries, a $3.3 million allocation for
teacher social security and retirement, and a $2.4 million allocation for teacher insurance
premiums. Total state funding is projected at $46.7 million after adding grants and other

funds. The Federal Government funds another 9% of school budget.

Approximately 70% of teacher’s salaries are funded through state BEP funds. Support
and administrative personnel are funded at a lower rate. The county is required by state
law to contribute an amount often referred to as maintenance of effort based on the
county’s fiscal capacity. Under the BEP, the states funding formula, Blount County is
required to provide local matching funds equal to 31% of instructional funding, 27% of
classroom funding, and 51% of non-classroom funding.

Proposed funding of teacher salaries for the 2011-12 year is lower than the 2007-08
level when there were fewer schools and is approximately $750K less than last years
budget. On the other hand, from 2009-10 to 2010-11 the school board budget was
increased 50% to over $1.5 million. Supply funding was cut to $-0- last year due to
lack of funding but the board still managed to find $17K for their TSBA union dues.
The Director of Schools budget has increased by 11%, and the office of principals has
increased by 15% since the 2007-08 fiscal year. Administrators salaries have far out-
paced teacher salary increases in almost every instance. This is public information and
not this writer’s opinion.

Much discussion has centered around insurance benefits. Much of the rhetoric has
been nothing more than just that, rhetoric. Perhaps somebody in county government
enjoys a “Cadillac” insurance plan that is free and pays 100% of everything as has
been proffered by some but this writer can assure readers that that has not been the
experience of teachers. The county will receive approximately $2.4 million for teacher
insurance premiums and another $925K for other employee insurance premiums for
FY12. Teachers have foregone increases in salary for benefits yet they are continually
vilified and accused of being overpaid, under-worked, and only seeking to fatten their
retirement and salary at taxpayer expense. Blount County taxpayers are not paying
100% of the premium cost for teachers.

The state is doing their part and the Federal Government provides millions more for
targeted programs and programs required under federal law. Funding for schools is a
three-legged stool. One leg is the state, one is federal, and one is local. The stool is not
balanced because one leg is not carrying their share of the burden. After considering
the data, one does not have to look far to see which leg is not offering support. Some
members of this commission continue to stress cuts even though they have been told
further cuts will have a detrimental effect on the service schools are required to provide.
One then wonders, since the state and the federal government is providing their support,
where is the county support?

The fiscal capacity of the county, or the ability to fund educational services according to
2009-10 state analysis of economic data, ranks Blount County 12th out of 95 counties.
The property tax rate, analyzed when rate was still $2.23, ranked 44th out of 95 counties

and was below the state average. The general purpose tax rate was 37th of 95 counties.
Beginning teachers salaries with a Bachelor’s Degree ranks 77th of 136, salaries for
teachers with Masters Degree ranks 63rd, and teachers salary with a Doctorate ranks
50th. Expenditures per student rank the county 64th of 136. Salaries of principals rank
26th out of 136.

Were it not for Federal grants over the last three years the public education system in
Blount County would have many laid-off teachers and staff members, severe cuts in
services, and may have even caused the system to be unable to meet its obligations.
This year, $2.3 million Federal dollars were intended for teacher salary and benefits
and could not be spent on central office personnel. Once again, Blount County teachers
see funds designated for them redirected to balance the budget. During all budget
discussions, teachers always take the hit when it comes to being asked to sacrifice.
Elections have consequences and Blount County teachers find themselves living with
the consequences of the last two election cycles from the Federal level to the local level.

Blount County has a Mayor that is short on communication skills and vision. He was
blind to the opportunity presented him by Mr. Jennings last year and now believes
Blount County can cut its way to prosperity. Never before have public education and
public school teachers been this vilified by the very ones entrusted with their wellbeing.
Educators were attacked this year without cause and the politics of education will be
dealt with next time.

Sincerely,

Grady Caskey
President-Blount County Education Association
P.O. Box 208
Alcoa, TN. 37701
865-984-1158

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