published Friday, August 31st, 2012

Cleveland schools tackles funding dilemma

Mayfield Elementary School in Cleveland, Tenn., is crowded.
Mayfield Elementary School in Cleveland, Tenn., is crowded.
Photo by Staff File Photo.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — A year after stating a need for a new elementary school, Cleveland education officials still are hunting the funding for it.

A proposed Bradley County wheel tax — which failed by a 3-1 margin in an Aug. 2 referendum — could have provided the borrowing power to build the school.

"We were waiting on the wheel tax, which obviously is not an option," said Martin Ringstaff, director of Cleveland City Schools at a recent special meeting with the city school board.

During the meeting, the board decided that its next measures would require a partnership with the county school board, increased interaction with the public and determined requests to the county and city governments.

"I've been in touch with Johnny McDaniel, the superintendent of Bradley County Schools, about our next move as a collective force dealing with the County Commission," Ringstaff said. "We believe we should go back to that group first."

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The commission offered the wheel tax as a funding solution to nearly $26 million — later scaled down to $21 million — in capital project requests made by the county school system a year ago. It would have resulted in an additional $11 million for Cleveland City Schools. The city school system receives $1 for every $2 raised for county schools according to an agreement based on student populations.

Officials with both school systems have said overcrowding drives much of their priority requests. City school officials said they need a new school to relieve pressure at Mayfield Elementary and other schools that have pushed their capacity.

"There's a movement out there — whoever they are — that we need to tighten our belts, but nobody seems to be able to answer the question of what do we do with additional students," said city school board member Dawn Robinson.

Short of eliminating its bus service and activity programs, the system has little leeway to allocate funding to capital projects, officials said. Even then, such cuts may not be enough.

"Do we want to maintain a low tax rate so we can say we have a low tax rate, when we can't fund the infrastructure and growing needs that we already have, and do away with art and music and band and football?" said Steve Morgan, vice chairman of the city school board. "When we ask those questions to our public officials that are holding the purse strings, then we'll get some answers."

The Cleveland Board of Education said it plans to engage the public in a detailed discussion of the system's budgetary needs and limitations at its next meeting Sept. 6 at Mayfield Elementary.

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