School superintendents dodged tough cuts in the past, but Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said the school board finally has found the right person to execute the trimming they've wanted for a long time.
"I have sat here and seen budget after budget that tough cuts couldn't be made," Henry said.
When commissioners unanimously passed their own budget Thursday, they also approved a $316 million budget for Hamilton County schools. Administrators trimmed $17 million to balance their budget.
Before the vote, commissioners made a point of telling new Superintendent Rick Smith that he proved himself with the budget.
"I am on record for a year and a half shooting arrows at the board of education," said Commissioner Tim Boyd. "Central office gave us something to show the administration is being good stewards of this money. This shows you are in earnest."
Next year's budget for schools eliminates 25 positions, including 10 central office jobs, two assistant principals and nine teaching positions. But only two secretaries will be laid off, Smith said.
More than $4.5 million will be taken from the district's reserve fund to keep schools operating, draining the reserve fund down to between $10 million and $11 million, just below what the state requires.
But a Board of Education member said ousted superintendent Jim Scales, not his successor, should get credit for developing a bulk of this year's budget.
"Scales' budget was approved," Commissioner Linda Mosley said after the vote.
The school board voted 6-3 to buy out Scales' contract in May for between $285,000 and $300,000, and the decision stirred a heated communitywide debate over race, support of urban schools and local leadership.
Mosley, who opposed the buyout of Scales, said several of Smith's tough budget proposals amounted to grandstanding, such as the plan to get rid of medical benefits for 49 contract school bus drivers, which was thrown out by school board members last week.
Interrupting a series of commissioners praising Smith for presenting a balanced budget, Commissioner Warren Mackey asked Smith if the school system had presented balanced budgets in previous years.
"Yes, for four or five years," Smith said.
Smith said his $1 million cut to central office is deeper than what Scales wanted to do. Losing fat in the central office was a longtime talking point for some county commissioners and school board members.
Smith didn't ask the commission for additional financial support on Thursday even though school board members have urged him to request $1.1 million in PILOT funds, or payments in lieu of taxes, that have been collected from Volkswagen.
"It wasn't the time to bring that up," Smith said. "It's part of our discussions privately and publicly."
PILOT agreements are tax breaks used to lure companies, such as Volkswagen. Under the agreements, businesses don't have to pay full property taxes for a certain number of years, but they must pay the share of property tax that is slated for schools.
School board Chairman Mike Evatt said Thursday the system will request the PILOT money -- intended for emergency education needs -- from the commission in the next few months.
Leaving the building after the vote, Smith showed relief that the budget approval, his first big move as schools chief, was over.
"Well, I came out and I've got all my skin," he told a security guard. "This may be the only time I can say that."
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, ...