A balanced budget proposal that does not require additional money from county taxpayers earned the Hamilton County Department of Education cheers from commissioners Thursday.
But it wasn't enough to shield Superintendent Rick Smith from pointed questions over use of school buildings, redistricting and long-delayed meetings between commissioners and school board members.
Smith presented the school system's $338 million 2014 general purpose budget to commissioners Thursday during a scheduled budget hearing. The school's proposed budget is $7.4 million higher than this year's budget, but school administrators are not asking for any more county money beyond natural growth in property taxes already directed toward schools.
Smith called the increases unavoidable and said growth in the county drove many of them.
The school system is required to increase salaries and benefits to some of its employees, which will cost $3.7 million more than this year. Additionally, there is a state salary increase of $1.2 million. Smith said the system also wants to add 20 teacher positions, which will cost $1.2 million. The biggest bump to expenditures is an expected $4 million health insurance cost Smith said is anticipated under provisions of the Affordable Care Act set to go into effect next budget year.
But the school system was able to save $3.8 million by renegotiating a custodial contract -- and from savings in retirements and the cost of dependent health coverage.
There is a $1.2 million gap between revenue and expenditures in the budget proposal, but Smith said it will be filled from the school system's fund balance, which is currently at $25 million.
After Smith's presentation, Commissioner Warren Mackey questioned him about the amount of classroom space in schools that wasn't being used. Mackey asked about the possibility of rezoning schools to bring students from crowded areas into schools that were not at capacity.
Smith said there had been "talk of redistricting in some areas." But he didn't specify where, and Mackey didn't ask.
Commissioner Marty Haynes rekindled the idea of meetings between the school board and the County Commission.
Thursday's hearing was an early step in the budget-approval process. The school system will continue to work with Mayor Jim Coppinger's office, and he will present the final 2014 budget proposal to the commission for a vote.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @glbrogdoniv.