This story was updated Wednesday, April 29, 2020, at 1 a.m. with more information.
Worried Hamilton County school board members postponed their budget vote last week due to concerns about the economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic — and some county commissioners agree that they should be worried.
Though the Hamilton County Commission hasn't given formal, public direction for the school district's fiscal year 2021 budget, some commissioners are hinting at the potential that the district will receive less growth money than in previous years — or none.
One commissioner even went as far as to urge the school board to consider cutting employee salaries.
"Perhaps we need to also look at 10-20% wage reductions for all of your administrators earning over $100,000/yr in addition to pay freezes for every employee below $100K," Commissioner Tim Boyd, of District 8, wrote in an email to school board members on April 17.
Boyd later told the Times Free Press that he doesn't think either the county or the school district should budget for any growth and they should pass budgets based on fiscal year 2020 revenue numbers.
The district's proposed $420 million budget includes a $7 million increase from FY 2020's $413 million budget.
The board initially approved a $410 million budget, approved by the commission in August, but amended the budget to $413 million in February because of increased revenue. The additional funding in this year's budget is based on $2 million in anticipated growth money from property tax revenue and a $6 million increase in state funding under the Basic Education Program formula.
Most of the additional funding is allocated toward teacher pay, including a recurring 2.5% pay increase the board approved in February and annual step increases that teachers typically receive each year, which costs about $2.8 million annually.
Boyd pointed out other areas he thinks the district could trim in the proposed budget, including $650,000 allocated toward upgrading teachers' laptops and $920,000 allocated toward literacy.
"Of all the time that I've spent on the commission, we certainly are in unprecedented times, and we have to be more conservative in our judgment than ever before," Boyd told the Times Free Press.
The school board was expected to approve the administration's proposed budget on Thursday, April 23, but after extensive debate and a four-hour meeting, the board delayed the vote.
Board member Steve Highlander of District 9 initially proposed the delay and said he anticipated the commission will share more information this week.
"I would like to get some direction from our funding body, the [Hamilton] County Commission. I have heard from some legislators, and they are anticipating some cuts from the state level further than what we've seen," Highlander said during the meeting.
Commissioner Sabrena Smedley of District 7 said she is unaware of any scheduled conversations between the commission and the school board right now — outside of the originally scheduled budget presentation by the district on May 5 — but she commends the board members who voted to wait.
"I think it's pretty smart of the school board to step back and say they'd like some direction from the commission. We are their funding body. I think moving forward slowly, cautiously and being very smart and diligent is the approach to take," Smedley told the Times Free Press on Tuesday.
"I do think the budget is probably going to look different than what we're accustomed to. Our revenue stream could be flat," she said. "I know it's been pretty much customary that we give the school board growth money. I don't know what, if any, we'll have this year."
County Mayor Jim Coppinger told the Times Free Press that the county is not anticipating increased funding this year. He also has not received direct information from commissioners on direction for the school district.
WHERE TO WATCH
— The Hamilton County Commission meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 29 will be live-streamed on the county's YouTube page. Visit www.hamiltontn.gov/Commission/ for more information.
— The Hamilton County Board of Education meeting at 5:30 p.m on Thursday, April 30 will be live-streamed on the district's Facebook and YouTube pages. Visit www.facebook.com/HamiltonCountySchools/ for more information.
"I have not gotten any direct information from commissioners, but I've certainly done a brief overview about what our intent is going into our budget [with them] and also made them aware of the fact that we've had conversation with the school system about the budget," he said. "The Department of Education is not requesting any additional funding from the general government, and the general government will not be requesting any additional property tax or fees or anything. We are in a really rough budget year because of the disasters we've had with the coronavirus and the tornadoes. ... This is one of those years that I think we all believe we don't know what the costs are going to be yet."
The district's chief business officer, Brent Goldberg, said that if the county does withhold any growth money, it would affect the current proposed budget by about $2 million.
"We [would] have to evaluate the budget for options to cut recurring expenses. Any reductions will be both challenging and widespread," Goldberg said Tuesday.
Typically, the school board passes a proposed budget, which is then reviewed by the mayor and the commission during a work session in May. The mayor incorporates the school district's budget into his final budget proposal, which goes before the commission sometime in June.
If the commission does not approve a budget by the end of June, the county would need to approve a continuation budget based on FY 2020's budget and by law must approve a budget by Sept. 30.
Commissioner Greg Martin of District 3 worries that officials might not have a true understanding of the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic until the fall or winter. He believes the county's budget should be based on actual data, not projected numbers.
"I don't think we ought to be hiring additional government employees or expanding government programs," he said.
The county commission meets Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. The school board is scheduled to meet for a special session on Thursday, April 30, at 5:30 p.m. The purpose of the meeting "is to discuss and vote on the FY 2021 budget," according to the meeting notice.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.