published Friday, April 5th, 2013

Hamilton County Schools budget rises; cuts still planned

Hamilton County Department of Education headquarters
Hamilton County Department of Education headquarters
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Hamilton County Schools general purpose budget will grow by about 2 percent next fiscal year, though the district still will look to make cuts as certain costs continue to rise.

School board members, in the thick of the annual budgeting season, met Thursday evening to discuss next year's costs and debate ways to balance the complex budget.

The current general purpose budget is projected to increase from about $331 million to about $337 million next year. That budget funds nearly all district obligations, including teachers, maintenance and transportation. But it excludes budgets for food service and federal programs. Altogether, the budgets for local schools reached about $384 million this year.

Even with revenue increases from the state and growth in property and sales taxes, Hamilton County will look to cut about $5 million in current spending to help cope with rising costs in health insurance and salaries, among other projected increases.

The board will consider dipping into reserve funds to balance the budget. Currently, the district has about $24 million in unencumbered cash. And though state law only requires them to keep about half that amount on hand at all times, administrators warned against spending down too much of the cushion.

Christie Jordan, director of accounting and budgeting, said the system spends about $1.6 million each school day.

"So we have about 12 days of operating expenses," she said of the reserve funds.

"When you look at it that way, that is cutting it close," said school board member Greg Martin.

Another consideration this budget cycle will be committin∫g more to school maintenance. The board will consider restoring its capital maintenance fund, which has been slashed in recent years to help balance the budget. Unlike the general maintenance budget, the capital fund helps pay for large repairs and upgrades to projects like restrooms, HVAC systems and roofs.

Assistant Superintendent of Auxiliary Services Gary Waters proposed a capital maintenance budget of $4 million next year. That fund is currently at $3 million and doesn't come close to tackling more than $200 million projected in deferred maintenance costs.

"It's a losing battle," Waters said.

Board members said they're in favor of restoring the fund, and some said they'd like to go even further.

Together, the current capital maintenance fund and the general maintenance budget add up to about $9 million a year. For perspective, board Chairmain Mike Evatt pointed to the $10 million the system spends on its custodian contract. Administrators on Thursday presented the board with several custodial bids for next year.

"I just think it's a shame that we spend more to clean our buildings than we do to maintain them," Evatt said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at 423-757-6249 or khardy@timesfreepress.com.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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