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Knox School Board talks budget woes

Knox County Board of Education members met Monday night at West High School, hoping to get some feedback from school patrons on how best they might handle knotty budgeting issues.

At a public forum that exceeded two hours, the board may have gotten all that it bargained for. And more.

Pamela Tracy of Farragut reflected the sentiments of many parents and teachers at the meeting when she told Board Chairman Dr. Dan Murphy and other board members she considered it “a shame to go to Knox County Commission and seek school funding that doesn’t meet the needs of students” in the school district.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Lindsey had outlined a series of proposed cuts that he said might keep the district within its projected revenue of $326.5 million for fiscal 2007. The estimate includes $8.4 million in projected property tax and state revenue growth.

Lindsey said the district, to balance the budget it will submit to Knox County Commission, must “back out” about $5 million cut from the district’s proposed budget.

Parents and others at the meeting, however, criticized recent proposals to cut 60 janitorial positions, remove foreign language classes from middle schools, end driver education funding in high schools, and realign teaching positions.

Dolores Yoder, parent of an eighth-grader at Cedar Bluff Middle School, said the Board spoke of excellence in schools but was “trying merely to hold onto existing programs” with the budget cuts.

Yoder said Board members should tell county commissioners what amount of funding was essential to operate schools well.

“If we continue to cut,” she said, “we won’t move forward on the agenda of making our schools better.” She said it was fine for the board to look at other districts’ funding formulas, used to determine where revenue could be saved.

“But you also need to look at what effect those formulas are having on their schools,” she added.

Michael Handelsman, a foreign languages professor at the University of Tennessee, criticized a proposal to end languages instruction in middle schools in favor of three language pilot programs in elementary schools.

Handelsman called the pilot program “a Band-Aid approach,” which offered pupils no continuity in acquiring language skills later.

“There’s nothing ‘foreign’ about any language learned in this increasingly global world,” he added.

Debbie Monroe, West Knox mother of two, said, “We cannot afford to go to Knox County Commission with a bareboned budget. We owe our children more than what we’re giving them. We’ve cut and cut. How can we say education is the most important thing we do when we cut it to the bone?”

Shannon Sumner commended the board for efforts to start its budget process early.

“It shouldn’t go into the summer,” she said. But she warned the Board to keep class ratios low, especially in classes for academically excellent students, if it went to a funding formula based on size of student body. Sumner also emphasized the need for district teacher salaries to rise at least to regional levels.

Sumner also opposed out-sourcing custodial work and said such front-end savings could end up costing the district in the long run.

Murphy said previous budget processes had been delayed until the district was more certain of its available revenue. But he said waiting for the county mayor’s April budget message meant the board lost several options for curbing spending.

Murphy said shifts in teaching positions, to get pupil-teacher ratios nearer 15:1, would result from realignment, “and that would send ripples through the schools,” he added. He suggested that any such change be phased in. He said Bearden Middle School, with 66 teachers for its 1,179 pupils, has the highest ratio at 17.9:1.

The board said $900,000 a year could be trimmed from the budget by ending driver training in high schools. But the proposal met with opposition from several parents and from Board member Sam Anderson.

Anderson said such programs as band are not expected to pay for themselves and that driver education should not be cut because the district subsidizes those courses.

“Not even basic education programs pay for themselves,” Anderson said. “And we’re missing the point if we try to raise fees to make driver education pay for itself. I think it pays for itself every time I make it home from work without having had a head-on collision” with a poor driver.

Board member Cindy Buttry agreed she was surprised to see driver education back on the superintendent’s budgetary “hit list.”


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