Apparently it doesn't matter who delivers the news: Hamilton County's school system is in trouble.
At Thursday's Finance Committee meeting, Bob Greving, chief financial officer of Unum Group and a member of the school board's citizen advisory panel, presented his own analysis of the school system's budget, which echoed the message Hamilton County Schools' CFO Tommy Kranz has been preaching for months.
The Hamilton County Department of Education faces a $20.2 million projected deficit next year, Mr. Greving said, due largely to a bloated personnel count and small and underutilized school buildings.
"It's really going to amount to school closings and layoffs," Mr. Greving said at the end of his presentation.
According to his analysis, Mr. Greving said the school system could cut the 528 positions that aren't funded by the state but that Hamilton County still staffs and save about $28 million, which would more than balance the budget.
Since personnel, salaries and benefits make up about 76 percent of the school system's budget, "this is where your primary solution is going to come from," he said.
After receiving a binder full of school system data, members of the Finance Committee's citizen advisory panel will skip next week's meeting and reconvene Feb. 3 at 5 p.m. By that point, Superintendent Jim Scales said, he would have some suggestions on what to cut from the budget so advisory panel members could discuss them.
Comparing the number of school buildings in Hamilton County to other large school districts in Tennessee, the school system also has between eight and 14 extra schools, Mr. Greving said.
Mr. Kranz said Thursday that school closings would be "a last resort," but that he didn't see how the school system could balance the budget for both 2009 and 2010 without consolidating at least some facilities.
As for personnel cuts, Mr. Kranz said to have an employee average on par with large state districts, it actually would require a reduction of 850 positions. But realistically, the system is looking at a staffing model for all schools that likely will eliminate "slightly more than 200" positions, Mr. Kranz said.
As in years past, administrators hope some of those positions will be taken care of by people retiring, he said.
Having a school system "outsider" present his findings to the school board and members of the citizen advisory panel helped drive home the gravity of the budget situation, Mr. Kranz said.
"The public sometimes thinks there's a bias or a prejudice in there," Mr. Kranz said. "Having Bob say it ... it doesn't directly affect him. It gives a little credence to what the district has been saying."
When asked if the school board was shirking its responsibility by asking the advisory panel for help, Finance Committee Chairwoman Linda Mosley emphatically said the board could do the job on its own, but members wanted to assure the community they were doing everything they could to balance the difficult budget.
"Part of the problem we've had is communication," she said. "People don't necessarily listen to (the school board) like they would their peers."