Hamilton County Schools budget includes $400,000 line item for 'contingency reserve fund'

Hamilton County Schools budget includes $400,000 line item for 'contingency reserve fund'

June 19th, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Schools Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg speaks about the book for the proposed 2019-20 budget during a school board meeting on April 25.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

This story was updated Wednesday, June 19, 2019, at 10:30 p.m.

Brent Goldberg, Hamilton County Schools' chief business officer, has gotten some heat from commissioners and board members in recent weeks about a $400,000 line item in his department's requested fiscal year 2020 budget.

The line "non-personnel contingency fund" has been characterized by some as discretionary funds, but Goldberg and some board members say it is a budget best practice for large organizations.

"The whole reason it is listed in the budget is to be transparent," Goldberg told the Times Free Press. "It's a standard, effective budget practice that makes it more efficient — that means if something comes up we can spend money without amending the budget."

Goldberg said the funds would be used for emergency situations, such as when the district had to replace a boiler at Spring Creek two years ago or when Superintendent Bryan Johnson and former board Chairman Steve Highlander moved to add enhanced security features to school entrances after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The funds would still be subject to the district's purchasing guidelines, which means any amount more than $25,000 would require a sealed bid process and approval by the school board.

District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman said she would rather the district left that money in the general reserve fund and didn't include it in the actual budget.

"That's where they get that magic money that just falls from the sky," Thurman said. "If it needs to be in the budget, then put it in the budget. If it doesn't, keep it in the fund balance and then come and make your case in front of the school board."

Highlander, who voted against Johnson's budget proposal along with Thurman, said large purchases still have to go before the board, even when emergency purchases are approved by the chairman and the superintendent.

"As long as it has to be approved before it's spent, it seems reasonable," he said. "As long as there is board oversight and it's used only in emergencies, it's good to have those funds there."

Hamilton County Schools is not the only government institution to include contingency money in its budget, Goldberg said.

The city of Chattanooga's FY 2020 budget, which was unanimously approved in a first reading by the city council Tuesday, includes a $3.1 million line item titled "Contingency fund appropriation."

Hamilton County government doesn't include contingency or reserve funds in its budget, except when planning for capital building projects, Mayor Jim Coppinger said.

Board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, said he trusts the intention of the reserve fund. He said he talked with county officials and other finance experts about budgeting best practices and said the board would review budget readjustments, also known as "true-ups," throughout the year to keep track of where the funding might go.

"All nine of us, every time we get a budget true-up, we go through it line by line. The best-case scenario is we don't have to tap into it at all," McClendon said. "I think it's something that's just being used as a talking point to create buzzwords."

The school district's $443 million budget is part of Mayor Jim Coppinger's proposed FY 2020 budget that is up for vote by the Hamilton County Commission next week.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @memangrum.