published Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Hamilton County: Stopgap Band-Aid

by Kelli Gauthier
  • photo
    Staff Photo by Angela Lewis
    Staff members of 21st Century Academy placed a message on the school sign Wednesday morning after the Hamilton County School Board mentioned the school as one of two schools that might be closed because of budget cuts.

The first draft of the school system’s plan to wipe out its $20 million projected shortfall delays necessary reductions and doesn’t solve longer-term budget issues, the district’s chief financial officer said.

Tommy Kranz said his initial budget, which includes closing two schools and eliminating 130 positions, defers millions of dollars in other expenses and leaves “no wiggle room” next year.

“We fully understand that what we’re doing is an ongoing process and one that’s very fluid,” he said. “We also realize we’re trying to fix a problem that didn’t occur overnight. We’ve just put a Band-Aid on the issue.”

That makes some people involved in the process wonder why.

“If you know what needs to be done, go ahead and take your medicine and do it,” said Kurt Faires, a lawyer with Chambliss, Bahner and Stophel and a member of the school board’s citizen panel charged with reviewing the budget. “I think we’re lacking a sense of urgency.”

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School administrators began laying the groundwork for a tough budget year last November, when they briefed Board of Education members about plans for closing up to 11 of the county’s underused schools. About 80 percent of county schools enroll too few students to cover costs of maintaining, heating, cooling and staffing. A Florida consultant’s report showed that the average school uses only 75.25 percent of its square footage.

Operating small schools with few students costs the district about $18.5 million each year, Mr. Kranz said.

But the budget the school board’s Finance Committee reviewed Tuesday did not contain some of the bold recommendations expected by the advisory panel and others. The budget proposed closing just two schools — Howard Middle School and 21st Century Academy — for a savings of about $1.1 million.

As a result, at least seven schools would be affected similarly next year, Mr. Kranz said, though he declined to name them.

“Those seven schools ... that will really be talked about in the next several (Finance Committee) meetings,” he said.

But Unum Chief Financial Officer Bob Greving, who serves on the advisory panel, said if those schools already have been identified, action should be taken sooner.

“You don’t just make a comment like that in an open meeting and not have more substance to it,” he said. “So what are the seven schools and why can’t we do something earlier than 2010?”

Some of the other expense reductions, such as for transportation or staff for new schools, are actually just deferrals, Mr. Greving said.

Of the $7.5 million in reduced expenses, $4.5 million is deferred, he said. “All we’re doing is postponing the inevitable.”

For example, students won’t get new textbooks to match up with new statewide standards next year, but the system will have to buy them eventually.

Putting off needed spending easily could increase a projected $12 million deficit to at least $16 million in 2011, officials said, which makes some committee members wonder if anything has been accomplished.

“We’d be raiding reserves and deferring necessary expenses,” said Mr. Faires, who argues that deferred maintenance costs push the shortfall to $40 million. “It’s a very shortsighted approach.”

Noticeably absent from the budget proposal were any concessions from the Hamilton County Education Association. Even though growing health care costs were the system’s greatest increase in expenses this year, employees would not pay any more for their health insurance under Mr. Kranz’s first proposal.

Budget draft

Hamilton County Schools administrators presented a budget to the Board of Education’s finance committee on Tuesday. The draft plan outlined the following spending cuts:

* $7.5 million: Reduction in projected expenses (includes transportation, utilities, new textbooks, staff for new schools)

* $5.8 million: Reduction in instructional staff

* $2 million: Reduction to central office

* $945,000: Reduction in assistant principals

* $786,096: Savings from closing 21st Century Academy

* $327,790: Savings from closing Howard Middle

* $135,000: Savings from closing nonschool buildings

* $2 million: Increase in revenue

* $678,580: Remaining budget shortfall

Source: Hamilton County Department of Education

Advisory panel member Eddie Holmes said the administrators were unwilling to address the real issues with benefits.

“They weren’t going to do it because they have to deal with the education association ... but once you take the benefits and salaries off the table, where else can you go to cut?” he said.

Mr. Kranz said he still is negotiating with the education association to see where more cuts can be made.

Election year complications

Schools Superintendent Jim Scales has said he recognizes that making substantial budget cuts — especially school closings — could mean political trouble for the board members who vote for them.

School officials have said part of the advisory panel’s purpose was to provide some political cover for the board when it came to difficult budget choices.

However, the pressure to close well-loved community schools will not get any easier, especially next year, when all County Commission seats and five of the nine school board seats are up for election.

The April 1, 2010, deadline to qualify for a school board race will come about the time system administrators would be presenting their budget again, said school board member Jeffrey Wilson.

“It’s rarely a good year to do any of that, but next year will have its own unique challenges,” said Mr. Wilson, who plans to run again for his District 5 seat. “What you may find is that some of those decisions (to close schools) aren’t made until after filing deadlines. They’ll drag out any decisions during an election year.”

County Commissioner Fred Skillern said politics should have nothing to do with school decisions.

“That shouldn’t even be a consideration,” said Mr. Skillern, who also plans to run again. “What does a political race have to do with the right thing with economics?”

But politics aside, somebody is going to have to step up and make some tough decisions, Mr. Holmes said.

“It’s going to take a willingness to do it and a courage to do it, which is lacking,” he said, “because it’s hard.”

about Kelli Gauthier...

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, ...

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aae1049 said...

What criteria is being used for a school to be on the list to close? Are we closing high performing schools, just becuase they have lower enrollment. Be very very careful what the measuring stick is, because Jeffery Wilson "you betca" 2010 will be a year that public education leadership will change in Hamilton County.

Commission Skillern cut $20 million out of the Hamilton County general government, and then big man talk is welcome.

For the record, close the 21st Century School, and our neighborhood schools, and Kiss your school board seat bye, bye. We are not going to tolerate closing 4 schools in this distrist.

February 22, 2009 at 7:59 a.m.
dendod said...

It's obvious from the article that Tommy Kranz doesn't have enough backbone to make the hard decisions. And Dr.Scales must be a foot Doctor. These two clowns need to be replaced as soon as possible. If you are having trouble reading the article, you were probably edumacated in Hamilton County.

February 22, 2009 at 11:54 a.m.
dendod said...

When it comes to cost, making accomodations for children with Depression, Bipolar Illness or Mood Disorders as required by IDEA, should not be even a choice. It's no problem for Kranz, Scales and their "Band of Goons" though. They act like attendance is the most important thing in a child's life. When you wake up on a school day and feel like your world is about to end, or are so manic that you can't even stand still let alone sit still, the last thing you need is to go to school and let some ignorant school nurse determine if you qualify for an excused absence. A parent should be able to determine if their child can go to school on any given day. What the Department of Education is doing amounts to ABUSE. The Department of Education is IGNORANT concerning mental illness and children. I have personally sat with Tommy Kranz and discussed these issues and he doesn't have a clue. He also put off doing anything about the ABUSE till he has his precious little budget worked out. I think we should let whoever maintains the BALLFIELDS in Chattanooga run the schools. Our BALLFIELDS are PERFECT while our SCHOOLS are in SHAMBLES. SHAME on HAMILTON COUNTY. OUR CHILDREN DESERVE WHAT THE GOVERMENT LAID OUT IN THE IDEA.

February 22, 2009 at 12:06 p.m.
Danielle said...

To whom ever may read this TAKE NOTE; I am very sickened at what is going on with the Hamilton County School system. First off, instead of the elimination of 130 positions, find other useful positions for these dedicated workers. WORKING with A SKELITON CREW is going to be a NO,NO! When positions are cut, our children are CHEATED! Our children's needs are already not being met in the first place! If you want to cut something, Cut the salaries of the big shots such Dr. SCALES, Tommy Kranz, and others. Part of the budget is the payroll! I know of children whose needs are not being met appropriately. They are suffering. We can use more people such as guidance counselors, tutors, and a board of individuals who do nothing but make sure that children with disabilities, emotional or otherwise, get appropriate accommodations! Some of these accommodations would be early intervention, IEPs, 504s plans, tutoring, and other needs. A lot of time and money could be saved by doing something wonderful for our children. Some children are being mistreated in the Hamilton school system and I will not STAND BY and continue to watch or to hear about it. If you want to talk about something, talk about the best ways to serve our students. One other thing that I am noticing and it is upsetting me is, The board of education are having other agencies, such as Department of children's services, do their dirty work for them! THIS NEEDS to STOP! Dr Scales has better things to worry about than DISTROYING the lives of FAMILIES!

February 22, 2009 at 1:13 p.m.
rolando said...

The federal government has no business interfering with local and state educational aims, goals, funding or anything else.

At the risk of seeming heartless, the No Child Left Behind, IDEA, et al are unfunded federal mandates we can no longer afford...yes, it has come to that. Integrating special needs students into regular schools [I hesitate to say "normal" because of the baggage attached] might have been a good idea at the time, but again, we cannot afford to have "highly qualified" special needs teachers at each and every school in the state. The answer, maybe -- consolidate. Or go for home-schooling if the need is that great...otherwise put them on the bus with the other students and treat them as such.

Please excuse the shouting but WE CAN NO LONGER AFFORD TO SUPPORT SPECIAL REQUIREMENTS -- they are just too expensive. Let O'MessiahBama pay for it. If the feds want something from the states, they can pay for it. [Yes, I know it is our taxes either way but at least we can control local uses of it and not pay for Paris "fact-finding" junkets or bridges to nowhere.]

Apparently, this Krantz guy and the other one -- Skales, or something?? -- want to close two high quality, high performing schools with motivated students, teachers and parents [which is why they are good schools] in favor of keeping the poor performers running. How stupid is that? Those two are evidently "graduates" of one of the poorer ones or advanced through some kind of federally-mandated either case, logic and long term goal-oriented thinking is definitely NOT their strong suit. They must be from Wash DC school system...

February 22, 2009 at 1:16 p.m.
dendod said...

Rolando, You must come from a family that has no mental illness problems. No Autism. No Developmental Disorders. Lucky for your relatives, seeing as you are about as ignorant as any poster that I have come across lately. You and your TYPE are a big part of the problem in Hamilton County.

February 22, 2009 at 4:55 p.m.
thatguy said...

Same old problem same old solution, problem is we need more money for the school to waste. Solution, keep money from schools so we will vote to raise taxes to support schools, politics. Shame of us for using these children for political control. The true solution is to lean out the misleaders in the system, it should not take so many people to run this system, and the maintenance dept is a waste as well fire them all and privatize the maintenance of the buildings and hold the company responsible. Everything is not rocket science-- remember the kiss method KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID.

February 22, 2009 at 6:35 p.m.
rolando said...

No dendod, the problem is every unfunded mandate forced on us by the federal government elbowing its way into our schools. The problem is things like no peanut butter [a very high source of protein] or other wholesome foods, et al, in school because one child is allergic to it; the problem is forcing schools to lump everyone together and teach to the lowest common denominator; the problem is inflated grades to meet federally forced standards; the problem is the feds forcing us to accept the hairbrained idea every Tom, Dick, and Harriet goody-two-shoes has that makes THEM feel good but produces nothing or even takes away; and these only touch the subject of failing schools with failing unfunded mandates. Handicapped kids is only part of it and a small part at best -- but an expensive one.

Soon our schools will spend every cent they have on everything but educating our kids.

And finally, dendod, sending a severely handicapped child to a school for non-handicapped [normal] children and expecting the school to adapt their teaching methods to meet your child's needs is egotistical and unrealistic in the extreme. Bring your own teachers into your home to teach your child, by all means...just don't expect us to pay for them.

February 22, 2009 at 11:20 p.m.
aae1049 said...

Fine Ronlando, Give us a vocher for our share of public education tax dollars and we will home school. But do not expect us to educate your children with our tax dollars. Also, please share where the cut off is for normal, so we know which children get to learn to read and which do not.

February 23, 2009 at 8:16 a.m.
dendod said...

rolando's comments reek of STIGMA and a callous heart. Greedy, selfish people who look down on those with disabilities make me sick. The Hamilton County School System couldn't teach a dog to fetch a stick. SHAME on Dr. Scales and Tommy Kranz. SHAME!!!!!!!!!!!!!

February 24, 2009 at 9:59 a.m.
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