April 2007

Liveblogging Budget Continued

The Channel 12 staff had to leave at 7 p.m., and a discussion ensued among Council members about whether to recess the work session until sometime later this week, so that the City budget presentation could be televised.

Agreement was reached to try to have the rest of the work session on Monday night at 7 p.m., half an hour prior to the regular meeting. Mayor Bradshaw asked Council members to keep Monday evening free from 5 p.m. on, with the possibility of meeting at the School Administration Building to have their meeting televised on ch. 15.

City Clerk Jackie Bernard will check with BBB, and will announce the time and place of the meeting’s continuation.

Liveblogging: Council Budget Work Session

 

John Smith, Oak Ridge Board of Education Chairman, opened the meeting with an overview of the Schools’ budget for this year.

As a Board, we understand what it takes to provide a quality education. We do the best that we can, as a community, to provide the best that we can. John notes that he has some ideas that he wants to bring forth at the right time, but tonight is not the right time.,

Some of the factors that impact our budget are student growth, commitment to improve student achievement and graduation rates, increases in insurance, retirement, fuel, water/sewer, electricity, etc. We must provide competitive salaries and benefits, we’re facing flat sales tax revenues. We expect an additional 124 elementary students this year.

Children on FRPL have risen to 31%, class sizes have increased, special education needs have increased.

Employee benefit costs have increased, and our staffing ratios must meet state requirements.

The most common factor in our success is our teachers.

Our utilities costs are rising, and our fund balance is being eroded. This year, our unexpended funds from last year were spent on repairs to items less than $50,000, which are not included in the CIP (Capital Improvements Program).

Many of our elementary schools are at the state class size maximum, and failing to adhere to state class size standards costs $50,000 in fines plus the cost of hiring teachers to remediate the situation.

Over the last 12 years, there is a sharp difference in the rate that the city revenues have increased, versus the City’s appropriation to the schools.

Still, there is no school in Tennessee with a higher ACT average than Oak Ridge High School.

Expenditures for Special Education represent 11% of our budget. Federal funds represent only 2% of our budget.

We expect an increase of $997,410 from the State, counting on the Governor’s cigarette tax proposal. Since 1999, increases in BEP funding have been only on the basis of enrollment increases.

Dropped from this year’s budget are Driver Education (except Summer School), adn the Volunteer Reading Coordinator (no, we’re not dropping a volunteer; we cut a staff position for the coordinator of volunteers, which pains me… ).

John Smith detailed the number of teachers to be added, and the corresponding schools and grade levels. Other staffing increases are one custodial or ORHS, 2 computer technicians, and a 0.1 ELL teacher.

$1.3M of non-recurring expenses will be paid from our declining fund balance, but this is the last year. David Mosby questioned whether there is that much left (above the required 3% reserve, but he was looking at a chart showing what will be left after the FY08 expenditure.

John noted that we just received word from Expansion Management Magazine of their Education Quotient Ranking, which is based upon graduate outcomes and community support of the school system. The EQ ranking is used by companies to compare school systems nationwide to evaluate the suitability of the workforce produced by local schools; Oak Ridge was the only system in the state to receive the Gold Medal designation — the highest awarded.

We do recognize the challenge that the City faces, but we ask that you support this needs-based budget.

Bailey notes that we now rank 8th in teacher salaries, but we rank 68th in benefits… our teachers’ take-home pay is NOT the highest in the state — not even close. We’ve tried to honor the City’s financial model, but we can’t offer the same services for the same dollars with expenses increasing. This is not a wish-list budget, and it does not move us forward.

* * *
Mayor Bradshaw notes his concern with the schools’ use of a large amount ($1.3M) of non-recurring funds; this is the last year that could happen. If the City had to fund the additional $1.3M in fund balance, we would be looking at an 18-cent tax increase. "What are we going to do, and have you thought about the long-term impact?"

Bailey responds that this is a result of the schools’ adherence to the "no tax increase" financial model. If expenses are put off for a number of years, as they have been, then the cost is higher in the long run.

Councilman Abbatiello alleges that he provided a list of questions at the April 17 Budget & Finance Committee — an illegal standing committee in my view — and that the School Board refused to answer the questions. Chairman Smith reminded the Mayor of his earlier remarks, that it is Council’s role to allocate funding in lump sum, not to dictate or question how, within the school system, said funds are spent.

The flat property tax rate, combined with declining sales tax collections, has harmed the school system by causing us to use non-recurring funds on an annual basis.

Councilman Beehan asks if we can provide a number to him representing the local burden posed by unfunded State and Federal mandates. That figure is not immediately available, but Bailey says that we can discern the percent of this year’s additional costs that are imposed by unfunded mandates.

Abbatiello points out that he has a list of all the unfunded mandates on the City side, and that they are all covered within the allocated 4.1% growth.

Councilman Beehan asks if the Governor’s proposal to increase the state salary share back to 75% is included in the budget; it is not. if that change is implemented, it will be done using the same 40-cent cigarette tax, so it will replace the currently-budgeted increases in at-risk and ELL funding.

Prom 2007

As the parent of every Junior and Senior in Oak Ridge knows, this was prom weekend.  Beta let me off the seamstress hook this year, and looked very ladylike with her hair and nails done.  Hard to believe she’s a rugby player in real life (thus, the long dress that covers all her bruises from Friday’s game).

He Who Tames Flying Monkeys had the assignment  honor of going prom dress shopping this year, as I was in San Francisco attending a meeting on the only weekend when she had time to shop.  He deserves some kind of really special award for that…

From April until June is a season of madness for parents: once the TCAPs are dispensed with, all of the big field trips, social events, and projects quickly fill the calendar.  And, it’s election time, so we have to squeak in a little off that wherever we can.

If I post a little less frequently, forgive me.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.

Tennessee Toll Roads?

SB1152, the "Tennessee Tollway Act," is making its way through the legislative maze, though ultimate passage is not at all certain at this point.  The Tennessean reports a delay, with Sen. Doug Jackson (D-Dickson) concerned that the Legislature needs final approval of where such toll roads might be built.

NIMBY?  Maybe.  In fairness, I didn’t hear his argument, but legislative approval is not needed on other road projects, so it sounds a little bit like he may want to ensure that there are no toll roads to affect HIS constituents — just others.

I don’t have a tremendous amount of experience with toll roads, but what little I have hasn’t been bad.  All in all, the toll routes I’ve driven tend to be less crowded, well-maintained, and — best of all — speed limit enforcement is minimal.  It’s a benefit of paying your fees up front for the privilege of getting where you’re going a little easier.  My only complaint has been when the only exits are run by concessions (Florida comes to mind), so gas prices (along with food, beverages, and whatever else is sold) tend to be higher because there’s no competition.  It’s very much like McDonald’s prices in an airport are a lot different than the McDonald’s out on the street, and I have a problem with that.

With gas prices still lingering at uncomfortable highs, most politicians are loathe to raise the gas tax — the traditional source of highway funds.  Stateline.org writes that, despite the growing popularity of toll roads, it can’t fill the $11B gap between available funding and planned projects.

A toll booth on the Herman Postma Memorial Bridge (Solway) might go a fair ways toward resolving Oak Ridge’s financial concerns, but that’s not likely even if this bill passes.  However, I don’t feel any strong opposition toward the idea of toll roads; it seems like a reasonable user fee, so long as it’s not overdone.

What do you think?

Changed Minds

There’s another really good letter to the editor in today’s Oak Ridger, from a couple who signed the referendum petition but subsequently changed their minds.  It’s worth repeating:

We signed a petition some weeks ago to call for a bond referendum vote on the Crestpointe proposal. We did so because we resented the clearing of the land of its trees a few years ago and because we thought, albeit naively, that the proposal would be too expensive for us as taxpayers. However, we have reconsidered our opinion and will vote FOR the Crestpointe bond. Why?

Our city services are among the best anywhere. We enjoy backdoor garbage pick-up, rapid-response fire department, accessible police protection, reliable utility service, and high quality schools. We have competent administrators who are efficient at managing expenses in their respective departments with regards toward the tax paying public. However, these services require a solid financial foundation to fund inherent increases in operation expenses. These excellent services are supported primarily by our property tax and by local sales tax revenue.

Since we all wish for our property tax to remain low and we want to maintain our city services at the levels to which we are accustomed, then we must do everything we can to promote retail sales in Oak Ridge. We will not get many opportunities like the Crestpointe proposal to attract a national retail store to anchor another major shopping center in our community.

Some say that the timing is not right; that our community cannot support another major retail center at this time. As non-business folks who do not have a vested interest in retail, we are sure the research team for Target has studied this issue thoroughly. They are convinced that an investment in our community is a sound business venture and that Target and other retailers can make it work on Crestpointe at this time. When sales are profitable for Target, it will benefit us as Oak Ridgers.

Some say that our city leaders might have problems negotiating a contract with “big time” developers. Having recently become aware of all the safeguards that are being built into the Crestpointe contract, we believe our city staff and local leaders have learned from their previous experiences. They are negotiating a package that ensures local money would not be spent on site development until signed contracts are in hand and until the developers have made a large commitment themselves to our community.

Regarding the environmental eyesore that the land has become to our community, it can never be reclaimed to what it once was. Therefore, we should seize this opportunity to “make lemonade out of lemons” and move on.

For these reasons and more, we will be voting in favor of the Crestpointe bond referendum and we urge others, whether they signed the petition or not, to vote for it as well.

Michael and

Barbara Bundy

Oak Ridge

I admit to being surprised that any educator would have signed the petition, but I’ve resisted the urge to make an issue of it.  Quite simply, a substantial portion of education revenues are derived from sales taxes, so it’s in the best interest of those of us interested in better education funding to support efforts to increase retail sales volume in Oak Ridge.

I’m glad that Mike and Barbara have come to the conclusion they ultimately reached, and hope that they are joined by many others whose names appear on that list.


Bragging Rights

Tonight’s School Board meeting was… uplifting.  Inspirational.  Bragging rights (sort of, for what tiny part of it I can claim any credit for) have been established.

There are some parents out there whose bragging rights are much more substantial, and I hope that they are swelled with pride.  First up was one of our multi-age preschool classes, demonstrating what they’re learning  these days.  We’re talking reading, counting, dates, money, alphabets — everything one needs to be ready for kindergarten.

Actually, it’s what we used to learn in Kindergarten.

One of the things that impressed me was, when a child did not know the answer, he or she did not stare at their shoes and mumble, "I don’t know"  (oh, the humiliation of the public "I don’t know…").  They looked up and around at their classmates, saying "I need help," and the rest of the class would chime in with the answer.

There was no shame, only helping and sharing.  There will be enough days down the road to feel the shame of having to say "I don’t know" in front of the whole class (not to mention the school board, all the parents, and the television camera); these preschool days are for learning.  There’s no shame in not knowing, only in not trying to know.

Pigpen was not among those needing help — he knew his answers.   He’s ready for the big K.

*   *   *
Next up was Landon Smith, an ORHS junior who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT.  Asked if he had anything to say he simply replied, "I had my Jr. AP (English) presentation today, so I think I’m just about done with public speaking for now."

Good job, Landon.  And good job, Landon’s mom, who teaches at Jefferson.

*   *   *
The rest of the meeting was fairly uneventful, but one item in the monthly financial report stood out to me: with 75% of the fiscal year behind us, our sales tax collections stand at 64.9%.  The big back-to-school shopping days of August are behind us; the mammoth Christmas season has passed.  Easter, when there’s usually a bump simply because most children have to have new Sunday clothes and shoes (and baskets and candy), is also history.

There are no more significant local shopping days, and we’re still grossly behind our target sales tax collections (which were meager to start with).

Think about it.  I know it’s hard to find stuff here, but it’s worth a try.  And, a vote in favor of the bond issue for infrastructure improvements is a direct vote for better shopping in Oak Ridge, which provides the money your schools must have to operate.

Edu-Budgets: ours and others

Today’s paper carries the story of a meeting between some School Board members (those who were not at the NSBA Conference) and some Council members (the ones on the budget committee, anyway) last night.  It was a contentious meeting at first, sounds like, because the proscribed "formula" increase planned by the budget and tax committee is 4.1%, while the School Board passed, on first reading, a budget that calls for an 8.8% increase in funds from the city.

In perspective, Knox County is set to ask for a 10.5% increase, of which,

$17.5 million in the proposed plan would go to pay for higher salaries, add positions, upgrade technology and establish the Excellence Through Literacy Program.

I don’t know how much of a pay increase Knox County has planned, but last year, we gave staff a 3.5% raise, while Knox County (and Maryville) gave 4.5%.  This year, even with a million dollar increase in requested City funds over last year, that only includes a 2% increase — less than the freaking cost of living!

Folks, we have the greatest teachers in the world, but we can only count on their affection and altruism to an extent.  We can’t pay them what they’re worth, but we can at least be competitive for the quality folks we do, and want to, attract.

Please don’t wait — contact your favorite member of City Council NOW and let them know that it’s important to fund this meager school budget THIS year and NEXT year, until we can begin turning around the sales tax deficit.  I’m convinced that it will happen, but it can’t happen immediately.

It’s already delayed a year because of the referendum, simply by where we fell in the decision queue.

I don’t want to pay higher taxes either, but I’d rather pay now to keep what’s important while we can still preserve it, than to pay later hoping to rebuild what we once had.

Stuart’s Win

Yesterday, Judge Blackwood’s decision to throw out David Stuart’s lawsuit regarding the arguably flawed election last August was vacated by the Court of Appeals.

I’ve got the goods.

Breaking News!!

DAVID STUART WINS IN COURT OF APPEALS.

More info as I get it… it’s too late (Eastern time) for me to call anyone… but I will tomorrow! Could last year’s election be called out for a re-vote? Looks like a possibility.

TUESDAY UPDATE: The Oak Ridger and the News-Sentinel picked up the story this morning. Shortly, I hope to actually have the written opinion posted.

Chinatown


Walking back from the convention center, I took a little detour through Chinatown.  Very cool.

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