published Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Hamilton County school board debates budget cuts, layoffs

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The Hamilton County Board of Education will meet tonight at 5 at school district’s central office on Bonny Oaks Drive for a work session on next year’s proposed budget. Board members will not vote at the meeting.

On the heels of a hotly debated superintendent hire, the Hamilton County school board tonight will debate a proposed budget that could cut as many as 30 positions and eradicate a $17.8 million deficit.

Fewer teachers and support staff could mean setbacks for schools pressed to meet higher state academic standards set by Race to the Top legislation, officials say.

“It is very unfortunate,” said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, a local nonprofit that supports schools and teacher training. “We are impacting not only our children but also our collective future.”

Board of Education members are divided on new Superintendent Rick Smith’s proposed budget. His proposal to cut benefits for contracted school bus drivers likely will be a main point of discussion. Cutting insurance benefits for the 49 independent contractors could save the school system $490,000.

The school system’s total budget is $350 million.

“We set a precedent a long time ago, and it seems unfair that we would take benefits away from people who have come to rely on them,” said school board member Linda Mosley. “A lot of them might have difficulty getting other insurance.”

Others say while the decision to cut benefits is tough, it may be necessary.

“I am not for it because it’s a devastating amount of money to put on [the bus drivers],” said school board member Joe Galloway. “I hate to see schools being cut, but we don’t have the money.”

Tonight’s work session to discuss the budget will prepare board members for next week’s vote on it, officials said.

Smith did not return calls for comment.

Other cuts proposed by Smith — four teacher trainers in the model classroom program in urban schools; 10 central office jobs; two assistant principals, one at Loftis Middle School and another at Orchard Knob Middle School; and fewer new teacher hired — go too far, Mosley said.

Decreasing the number of projected hires from 55 to 45 as Smith proposes could shortchange schools and keep the system from attracting a better pool of teachers, she said.

Four years of budget cuts to schools have thinned teacher ranks and increased class sizes.

And this year teachers must pay more for their health insurance. The school board approved a contract with the Hamilton County Education Association, the local teachers union, that raises individual health insurance premiums from $25 to $100 beginning this year, a move estimated to save $4.8 million.

“I think [teachers] have sacrificed enough,” said Sandy Hughes, president of the HCEA. “I think the funding for education of our students should be a priority in the county’s financial plan.”

Still, Smith’s plan has the support of some board members. All school board members have reviewed the budget, and Chairman Mike Evatt said he thinks it looks solid.

Board member Everett Fairchild said he plans “to support it as something that we are forced to do. He [Smith] is in a position to know where the cuts can be made.”

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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