After yet another difficult budget year, Hamilton County Board of Education members vowed to start the budget trimming process even earlier for next year.
The promise came during a special meeting Wednesday where a divided school board narrowly approved the school system's $372 million budget for fiscal year 2011 by a 5-4 margin.
"We know today that if we don't do anything we're going to have a shortfall next budget season," said system Chief Financial Officer Tommy Kranz. "That's a given."
Several board members who voted against the budget said they didn't feel comfortable approving something they hadn't had time to read. The budget books mostly are the same that board members have seen for weeks, but they received updated copies at the meeting.
Thanks to greater-than-expected revenues from local sales tax and state education funds, as well as officials' decision to use more of the system's fund balance, the budget decreased by about $230,000 over previous projections.
Although some step pay increases were included for certain teachers, the budget does not include any across-the-board raises for teachers.
Board members and school officials both said they hoped the move sent a clear message to the Hamilton County Education Association, whose leadership they say has been uncooperative in negotiations over employee health care.
"I think the opportunity is gone to make changes (and include raises in the budget)," board member Chip Baker said. "We ought to get our HCEA folks fired up earlier in the year. If they don't want to negotiate, fine."
Superintendent Jim Scales agreed.
"I'm not willing to give up on this until we get some relief (from employees paying higher insurance premiums)," he said. "We've taken several options to HCEA, and we haven't gotten very far with it. We're getting to the point where we're not playing softball, we're playing hardball."
Association President Sharon Vandagriff did not return a phone message late Wednesday night.
Although the board voted to cut 45.5 school-based positions, it also decided Wednesday to add back 40 jobs, for a net reduction of 5.5 school-based jobs.
The final budget also eliminates two positions from the central office.
HOW THEY VOTED
On whether to approve the school system's budget for fiscal year 2011
* Chip Baker: Yes
* Chester Bankston: No
* Janice Boydston: Yes
* Everett Fairchild: No
* Linda Mosley: Yes
* Rhonda Thurman: No
* Kenny Smith: No
* Jeffrey Wilson: Yes
* George Ricks: Yes
To help balance next year's budget, Hamilton County Schools will eliminate 45.5 school-based positions and add back 40 because of anticipated growth in enrollment.
* High schools: Cut 28
* Middle schools: Cut 11
* Elementary schools: Add 14.5
* Combo schools: Add 14
* ESL: Add 2
* German program: Add 3
* Total: Cut 5.5
Source: Hamilton County Department of Education
Every year Dr. Scales has a pot of money called an instructional reserve with which he can hire any last-minute teachers needed because of increased enrollment. Because the system anticipates growth again in August, officials decided to go ahead and add those positions now to avoid scrambling
to find extra teachers once school has started.
Middle and high schools still will be the hardest hit by personnel cuts, as they saw a net of 28 jobs cut. Elementary schools and combo schools -- such as East Hamilton School and Signal Mountain Middle-High -- each will gain about 14 positions.
There is still enough money in the instructional reserve to hire about seven teachers in the fall if needed, Mr. Kranz said.
The board voted on each budget amendment separately, rejecting only an item that would have given raises to five central office employees who officials say are functioning as directors but getting paid only as coordinators.
The raises and title changes would have cost an extra $51,000.
"When we're cutting 45 positions in schools, I cannot justify giving a raise to someone in central office," board member Everett Fairchild said before voting against the item. "The timing of this recommendation is terrible."
Board members Chester Bankston, Linda Mosley, Rhonda Thurman, Kenny Smith and Chip Baker also voted against the raises, while members Janice Boydston, George Ricks and Jeffrey Wilson voted to approve them.
In addition to Wednesday's changes, the board voted to approve previous budget proposals, which included cuts to the central office and the exceptional education department.
School district officials now will request a date to present their budget to the Hamilton County Commission. The commission provides local funding to the district and also must approve its budget.
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