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School Board to vote on budget Thursday— maybe

This morning, the Knox County Board of Education will convene once again for a called work session to hopefully balance the budget.

A vote on the budget was postponed at its called meeting Monday, July 18, largely in order to ask the Knox County Commission for about $3 million in additional funding.

It’s money School Board member Chuck James, District 6, isn’t counting on, but acknowledged, “it’s worth a try. … We’re just going to have to go in there Thursday morning and roll our sleeves up and decide that we’re going to balance this budget because it’s time to balance this budget. … Whenever the county mayor presented his budget to the County Commission, they did their budget in about thirty minutes. We’ve been working on our budget for several months. … I can’t decide if we’re working together or working against each other because we just can’t decide the right thing, but I think it’s a very good thing that we’re just not making hasty decisions.”

As Director of Secondary Instruction Ed Hedgepeth, former Farragut High School principal, has become intimately acquainted with the budget.

“It’s one of the most grueling and sometimes disheartening processes I’ve ever been through,” Hedgepeth said about making necessary cuts. “It’s not a fun job.”

Hedgepeth, however, is quick to clarify what kind of cuts he believes is appropriate.

“My heart is always in the area of instruction. That’s first and foremost. Anything we can do to protect instruction … then I’m for it,” he said.

“Instruction,” he added, includes driver’s education — a course that KCS superintendent Charles Lindsey had suggested cutting to save money.

“Driver’s ed, even though it’s not considered an academic course, is an important aspect of the teenage years … to make sure they’ve at least been exposed to the proper driving habits and techniques as well as the rules of the road,” Hedgepeth said.

Board member Karen Carson, District 5, agrees.

“A lot of people on the Board have said: ‘are we in the business of teaching kids to drive?’ Well, we are in the business of teaching kids life skills,” Carson said. “It’s frightening to me as a parent of teenagers and also as a nurse who works in an emergency department. … The curriculum of driver’s ed is not just the mechanics of driving, it’s the responsibility of driving.”

Driver’s education could be salvaged if the Board votes in favor of Lindsey’s latest proposal to transfer non-certified employees to the county’s health insurance plan.

James supports the plan.

“We’re going to be able to save one-point-five million dollars,” he said. “Everybody’s going to still be insured. We’re gonna have a lot of people who couldn’t afford the insurance before that’s going to be able to afford this insurance now.”

Lindsey’s proposal also includes re-establishing field trips, a line item that Carson believes shouldn’t be eliminated but could be improved.

“I think that field trips are valuable that they’re a real important part of learning but I think that there’s a real inequity in field trips right now,” she said. “There are some schools that go on very few field trips and some schools that go on many.”

At today’s session, James plans to re-introduce an idea previously examined by the school board.

“I’m going to suggest that we do an R-F-P for janitorial services to come in and start cleaning our schools and we can save two million dollars,” he said.

James expects mixed support from the Board. “I don’t think it will be a nine-to-zero vote, but to continue to have the great schools that we have, we’re gonna have to make some cuts and that’s one cut that keeps everything away from the classroom,” he said. “Anytime you can save money and keep cuts away from the classroom, it’s a good cut.”

Knox County Mayor Michael Ragsdale agrees.

“We’re not in the cleaning business [in the county]. We’re not in the construction business,” he told farragutpress in a recent interview. “We outsource all that and it serves us well and I would hope that [KCBE] would begin to move in that direction over time.

“I don’t think that they’re over there squandering millions of dollars,” he said about the Board’s budget woes. “Could they spend more money in a proficient manner if they had it? I think so.”

Earlier this year, the county took over purchasing, payroll and telecommunications for the Knox County Schools and in addition, Ragsdale listed the county’s contributions to the schools to include more than $2 million for the Great Schools Foundation, support of Project Grad and the Read with Me programs and the plan to upgrade every science lab in the county to “world class standards.”

County support includes funds toward a new West Knox County high school.

“In the past the School Board has had to pick up the bond cost of capital projects,” Ragsdale said.

Not anymore. That expense is now paid for with county funds as well as the bonded indebtedness for about $15 million in additional countywide school improvements.

“I’m pleased with how we’re contributing with schools,” Ragsdale said.

As to Knox County’s contributions, Carson said, “I think they’ve been very supportive … but the truth is, even three more million dollars would make a huge difference in this budget.”

James is looking toward August when the Board plans to vote on a final budget.

“I think we need to break this budget down,” James said, “If it takes two days to vote on it and vote on it item by item, if we have to.”


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