Hamilton County: Ochs report helps board focus on school budget

Hamilton County: Ochs report helps board focus on school budget

February 5th, 2009 by Kelli Gauthier in Local Regional News

After hearing the second outside analysis of the budget they're trying to balance, Hamilton County school board members say they're ready to get to work.

Reaction was mixed among board members this week after David Eichenthal with the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies suggested that lagging state and federal revenues have contributed to the local system's shortfall. He also said school spending has grown at a slower rate than other county funds.

School board member Rhonda Thurman said she felt it was a waste of time to complain about inadequate funding.

"All this is good, but we have until March 15 (to balance this budget), so there's no sense in dealing with the state. We're not getting any more money," she said.

But other members appreciated the information in the Ochs Center report, presented Tuesday evening in a finance committee meeting. George Ricks is three months into his first term on the school board and said any extra information he can get helps him with tough decisions before him.

"I think this entire setup is useful with the community input," he said, referring to the finance committee's citizen advisory panel. "I want to make a real educated decision, so I love all this information that's being presented."

Mr. Eichenthal said his report aimed to put Hamilton County Schools' financial situation in context with other school systems around the state and the country.

"It's really a bunch of information we feel is relevant to the conversation that is going on right now," he said.

Per-pupil spending in Hamilton County has grown at a slower rate than the statewide average - 15.4 percent compared to 19.3 percent - which Mr. Eichenthal said was due largely to lagging state and federal revenues allocated for Hamilton County. In turn, local revenue here actually has grown at a faster rate than the rest of the state, picking up the slack, he said.

Federal funding for Hamilton County likely will change if President Barack Obama's stimulus package is approved, Mr. Eichenthal said, but state revenue continues to be an issue. There still are inequities in the state's Basic Education Program formula, which gives Hamilton County the seventh highest amount of BEP money in Tennessee, despite the district's rank as the fifth largest system in terms of student population.

In addition, more than half of students in Hamilton County are economically disadvantaged, which Mr. Eichenthal said requires additional services and additional funding.

Even when adjusted for Tennessee's low cost of living, the state ranks 38th in per-pupil spending - $7,812.34 per student, compared to the average of $8,768.01 across the country, the report shows.

Mr. Eichenthal also addressed the issue of whether Hamilton County has too many school buildings and too many teachers. Although the data shows the district has 524 fewer students per building and 20 percent fewer students per teacher than national averages, Mr. Eichenthal cited research saying that small classes and schools are effective. The determining factor still is quality teachers, he said.

Ultimately, Hamilton County is not alone in its budgetary woes, Mr. Eichenthal reported. The public school system in Seattle recently had to close low-capacity schools, an option administrators here also are considering.

"I don't envy the work of the school board here," Mr. Eichenthal said. "It's easy to reduce government spending. The hard part is figuring out how to do it without impacting desired outcomes."

Travis McDonough, an attorney with Miller & Martin and a member of the school board's citizen advisory panel, said Mr. Eichenthal's report provided good information for the future of the school system.

"We have to decide as a community whether we want to be average in a state that ranks 40th in funding, or do we want to be exceptional. I hope we choose to be exceptional," he said.