September 2013

Q&A: Constituent Questions

As most readers now know, I serve on our local school board.  That’s why much of my writing has to do with education, government, and children.  This morning on Facebook, a gentlemen who’s recently moved back to town asked several questions that I’d like to answer, in a format better suited to a longer response.

1) how does the school system operation get the funds to operate; where does the money come from and what is the source?

The school system receives funding from the federal government (4%), the state (41%), Anderson and Roane Counties (27%), and the City of Oak Ridge (28%).  Funds from the federal government are fairly restricted to specific uses, and state funding (known as BEP) comes with significant strings attached.  State law dictates a minimum in matching funds from counties, although nearly all contribute more than the statutory minimum since state funds+county minimums isn’t adequate — in Oak Ridge or anywhere else.  [Source: p. i, ORS FY14 Budget]

2) the sales tax enacted for the HS Project: is that paid to the ORSS or CoOR?

Sales taxes are all submitted to the State, and the local option (about 2.5% of the 9.75% sales tax) is returned to the County Trustee.  Of the local option sales taxes collected in any given county, half is divided equally (proportionate to enrollment) between all the school systems in the county.   In Anderson County, Oak Ridge gets about 1/3, Clinton City gets just a little bit, and Anderson County Schools gets almost 2/3.  The other half — the half not designated by state law for education — goes to the local government in the jurisdiction where it was collected.  So, if the item was purchased in Oak Ridge, half of the local option sales taxes is split between the three school systems, and the other half goes to the City of Oak Ridge.

After the County superseded the tax rate, the school board unanimously approved a resolution (requiring a like resolution by City Council) that the schools would continue to contribute the schools’ portion of the half-cent collected in Oak Ridge — exactly what the referendum specified — to the City for debt service on the high school.  However, the City never even voted on that resolution, so it’s meaningless unless and until they do.

3)  from the published budget report there is an overage in the School Budget: is that correct or am I reading that wrong?

No, the budget is balanced.  It has to be, by law.  Revenues are budgeted at $55,485,152, and expenditures are budgeted at the same amount.  [Source: p.1-3 of the budget, linked in the answer to question 1]

4)   if there ARE excess and above spending in the school account, what is the money for and where did it come from, and why is there an excess of funds when the BOE ask the CoOR for funding? Granted the City should pay the funding for the MOE, but again what is the $5,000,000 excess in the school account?

We, like the City and the State, have an undesignated fund balance.  If, at the end of the year, any money remains, it goes into the fund balance.  The state requires that we keep an amount equal to 3% of our budget (this year, that would be  $1,664,554.56) in the fund balance, that we are not allowed to spend for any purpose without state approval.  There are also restrictions — fund balance cannot be used for salaries.

An example of what fund balance is used for would be last Spring, when a large sinkhole suddenly developed in the middle of the soccer field (and of course, this had to happen during soccer season).  It had to be repaired, and it had to be repaired immediately.  Sometimes, fund balance is used for one-time purchases during the budget process, when local revenues are inadequate to meet needs.  That happened this year: funding to add additional computers to the middle schools, required for mandated on-line testing, was taken from fund balance.  It’s a good practice to keep fund balance at 12% of the budget, but we’re substantially below that.

Because we cannot legally overspend the budget (one can go to jail for that, I think) and it’s darn near impossible to project expenses to the penny, we typically end the year with a little bit left over.  Not much, but a little bit.  Over the last 70 years, we’ve built up a bit of a reserve, but over the last 15 years, it has dwindled as local funding failed to keep up with the pace of inflation.

*  *  *

School Board members can be easily reached: if you click on any member’s name, you’ll be taken to a page with a phone number and e-mail link.  Thanks for asking, and let me know if I can be of further assistance.

12 Years Later

Of course I remember where I was on September 11, 2001.  I remember the perfect blue sky; I was at an outdoor Chamber Coffee held at Barge Waggoner Sumner and Cannon in Commerce Park.   I was among friends and colleagues, enjoying a beautiful Tuesday morning.

I was talking with Ray Evans, whose office was hosting the get-together, when his secretary came out the door and told him that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  I left, and listened in my car to the news.

I was watching CNN in the kitchen as I worked at my sewing machine, believing it to be a horrible accident, when the second plane hit. I watched it happen in real time.  My blood ran cold, and the next hour was an exercise in just keeping calm.

When my husband came home before lunch — Y-12 sent everyone home as a precaution — I decided that it was time to go get the kids from school.  Yeah, before lunch.  I wasn’t the only one… I think about half the student body checked out early that day.

* * *

Today is a day that looks very much the same, with that perfect early autumn sky.  So much is different: we’ve spent billions on security and military action and are safer in some regards, but no safer in others.  So much is the same: we cannot prevent the unthinkable.   Osama Bin Laden is dead, as is Saddam Hussein, but there are others who wish us harm — some of whom live among us.  We don’t know who they are.  In most cases, we don’t even know why they hate us.

* * *

Today I think about my firstborn, working in a landmark Chicago skyscraper.  I think about how people have changed since then, with far greater numbers looking for conspiracy around every corner.  It seems like — at least locally — more people get their news from Facebook than from the news media, and that many in the news business have gravitated toward either breaking the story first (with little emphasis on getting it right), or toward emphasizing the sensational over simply providing information.

We have greater instant access to more information than ever before, but as a society, it seems we’re less informed than we were a half-century ago.  We grab mcnuggets of information on the fly, not bothering to question, fact-check or seek more in-depth resources.  If we’re less informed, are we not at greater risk — not necessarily just from terrorism, but all manner of harm?

We must remember how to think for ourselves, to access information from both sides of any issue, and try to become the strong, conscientious people who built this great nation.  Only then will we be safe, not only from outside threats, but from our own self-destruction.