Budget cuts, other difficult decisions, for 2020-21 school year
During a difficult Knox County Board of Education budget meeting last week, I noticed a letter on the desk from one of our precious Farragut High School students. Over the years, I’ve watched John grow into a fine young man, and his letter told me how happy he is that I’m his school board representative.
Wow, was that ever a great moment to be reminded of exactly why I serve.
The budget process is long and complex. In September 2019 the KCS Finance team presented a preliminary budget for the 2020-21 school year. It served as a starting point for superintendent Bob Thomas, his staff and the Board to discuss what financial investments need to be made to better implement our Strategic Plan. Since then, Finance continued to work through the budget to include several items that are key in supporting the Plan.
We hoped to increase teacher salaries (currently Knox County is ranked 31st in the state), increase support staff salaries in order to improve retention rates, purchase new English Language Arts textbooks for all students, and throughout the district add much-needed mental health professionals, social workers and elementary school counselors. Even pre-COVID, we knew wouldn’t be able to add all that we would truly like to, but with healthy property tax and sales tax trends, we were projecting we would be able to address about half the needed items with a $21 million increase to our general purpose budget.
Then the pandemic hit. … About a third of our budget comes from sales tax, so with many businesses being closed, our projections are quite different now. The full impact of the pandemic is yet to be seen and is expected to have negative effects on sales tax into the coming months. Therefore, caution is necessary. We’ve gone from an expected budget increase of around 4 percent to a .5 percent decrease.
While whittling the budget, the superintendent’s goal was to minimize the impact on classrooms as much as possible. He challenged the Finance team to be creative in their approach and they identified reductions in a variety of ways through budgetary savings, reallocations and cuts. Some of the budget cuts included eliminating roughly 20 positions in the central office, plus year-round employees (the Superintendent, central office employees, and principals) will take a slight pay cut (furlough of five days).
I’ve heard from many parents and community members over the last several weeks. The anxiety has been high and continues to be. I understand the frustrations and continued angst about what school will be like in August. Earlier this week, parents and teachers should have received an extensive survey about school opening in August. I urge you to provide honest feedback and submit it as soon as possible. In addition, the Superintendent has put together the KCS Re-Entry Community Task Force with community representatives from every area of Knox County. The Superintendent and his team are working on several different scenarios to be sure students are ready to learn and your input is valuable to the process.
Four years ago, after being encouraged to run for office, I prayed, sought wise counsel and was amazed by the wonderful people who supported me. The supporters that meant the most to me were the kids — my children’s friends, the volleyball players I coached, the little kids at church — they were my biggest encouragers. How humbling it is to have children place their trust in you. I take this trust very seriously and count it a privilege to serve the students, families and educators of the 5th District. Thank you.
Chair, Knox County Board of Education