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School board members study information packets during a September meeting.

In coming years, the Hamilton County Schools system should take a more strategic approach to budgeting, school board member Tiffanie Robinson said during a finance committee meeting Thursday night.

The district should consider forecasting budgets for future years instead of creating a new budget each spring, Robinson said. This approach would provide the school board, the Hamilton County Commission and the community a better understanding of the district's strategic plan, she said.

Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly said the difficulty is that the County Commission, which holds the district's purse strings, hasn't raised property taxes to boost school funding in 12 years, and it's hard for the district to anticipate expected revenue.

Robinson said even if the forecasted budgets exceed expected funding levels, it will help the board see budgets that reflect where the district wants to go and why it should fight for increased funding.

"As a school board member I need to understand how far I'm going into the negative next year, the following year, and the year after that," she said. "And my hunch is that our funding body would want to see the same thing."

School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones pushed back on Robinson's idea, saying everyone already knows the district needs more funding.

Christie Jordan, assistant superintendent of finance for Hamilton County Schools, said the proposed budget for the upcoming year, which requests about $32 million in additional funds, is very similar to the budget presented to the county last year.

The commission did not fund last year's budget, which originally asked for an additional $24 million, and the board was told to provide a balanced budget.

Jordan explained there is now a request for additional funding in this upcoming budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins in July, because "when you don't get the funds, the needs don't go away."

Robinson reminded the district and fellow board members that ultimately the board is tasked with developing a balanced budget this year.

During the meeting, Jordan also gave the board a summary of the upcoming year's $365 million general operating budget. Eighty-one percent of the budget goes to paying salaries and benefits, she said, explaining that 93 percent of employees are stationed in schools every day.

The district also has made budget cuts over the years, Jordan said. It has saved more than $20 million by doing things like switching employees' insurance benefits, changing the way the district adopts textbooks and eliminating and consolidating positions at the central office and the school level.

"I just wanted the board to see, it's not like we don't try to look for cuts and are just in the add mode and not in the cut mode," Jordan said. And after making significant cuts for so many years, she said, it's hard to look for new areas to trim.

School board member Rhonda Thurman challenged Jordan on the district's employee cuts, saying many positions were eliminated and then added back under new titles.

The County Commission has continually criticized the board for having more than $200 million in deferred maintenance, but Jordan said the district put $3 million into capital projects this past year, since there was an influx in sales tax revenue and state funding.

"We are not ignoring our capital needs," Jordan said. "We are doing them as much as we can."

The commission and school board are having a joint meeting Tuesday and are expected to talk about facilities needs. The commission has been vocal that it doesn't want to build new schools, saying the district needs to consider rezoning students into some of the buildings that are under capacity.

Justin Witt, director of maintenance and operations for the district, told the board Thursday night that the district overall is at 83 percent capacity. He added that this capacity number is likely too low, as the space needed for programs has grown over the years.

Rezoning is "a very temporary fix," Witt said, as 100 percent capacity should not be the goal because the school system is growing each year.

School board Chairman Steve Highlander also announced he talked with the superintendent search firm, Coleman Lew and Associates, and it has eight serious prospects for the job.

The board did not officially launch a search for a new superintendent until January, and the search firm previously said it would try to provide the board with a final list of names this month. Highlander said the firm is hopeful it will meet that deadline.

Lee McDade, assistant superintendent of student services, also told the board that Durham School Services was the only bus company to respond to the request for bus service proposals sent out in January.

Durham now contracts with the district to provide a majority of its busing services, and following the fatal Nov. 21 bus crash, the board wanted to look at other transportation options before renewing its contract with Durham.

Since Durham is the only company to respond, the board is left with little choice but to renew its contract. Durham also has implemented a series of safety upgrades since the crash.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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