School system shortfall increases to $14 million

School system shortfall increases to $14 million

April 6th, 2011 by Dan Whisenhunt in News

Christie Jordan, center, goes over finance items Tuesday as Linda Mosley, left, and Dr. Jim Scales listen during a Hamilton County School Board Finance Committee meeting. Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press

A new estimate of a $14 million revenue shortfall for next year's budget put Hamilton County school board members in a bad mood Tuesday, which led to some testy exchanges between board members and school administrators.

The shortfall was revised from a previous estimate of $10.7 million. Accounting and Budgeting Director Christie Jordan said the higher figure is the result of additions to the budget and expectations that revenue from property taxes will decrease.

Board members didn't come to any conclusions about what cuts should be made to address the deficit, and after talking about two hours, they pushed off a decision until their April 14 meeting.

Board member Linda Mosley, chairwoman of the Budget and Finance Committee, said she's asking for board member recommendations on other possible cuts.

Presented in a packets given to board members from system administrators, a list of cuts titled "additional cuts for discussion" included cutting middle school athletics, which would save $788,077, and cutting transportation for high school students, saving $2.6 million.

Other ideas in the packet ranged from increasing insurance costs for teachers and scaling back the maintenance budget to eliminating what the system pays on dependent-care coverage for teachers.

School Superintendent Jim Scales said eliminating dependent care from the budget would save the school system about $18 million but "hopefully, that's not going to happen."

He also said the system could increase the cost of individual health coverage for all employees from $25 a month to $100 a month and that would save about $4.5 million.

Jordan explained that, between current property taxes not coming in at estimated levels and another reduction expected in next year's property taxes, the school system stands to lose $2.79 million.

Part of the drop is because of the sale of some high-profile buildings in downtown Chattanooga that came in far lower than the buildings' appraised values, thereby reducing what companies likely will pay in taxes, she said.

Though Jordan didn't name any specific transactions, the Tennessee Valley Authority repurchased its downtown Chattanooga office complex for $22 million although it had been appraised at $96.3 million. When it was owned by a Chicago-based private company, the building generated about $1 million in property taxes for both Hamilton County and Chattanooga, records show.

The sale of the former BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee headquarters on Pine Street for $6.15 million when it was appraised at $19.8 million, and Chestnut Tower at Sixth and Chestnut streets for $4 million when it was appraised at $6.4 million also could reduce tax collections.

The school system is also expecting to spend $850,000 more on its special education program next year because more students have qualified for the program.

Board Member Rhonda Thurman questioned why the school system has discussed creating a new adult high school program. One proposal called for cutting half the budget for that program, saving about $750,000.

"I did not take an oath to educate adults," Thurman said. "I took an oath to educate K-12. To me, one of these is a no-brainer. We're talking about closing one to three schools and opening an adult high school? Hello?"