School Budget 101

Facebook is sort of a fun thing, but it’s also used by many as an information exchange.  That’s fine for some things — businesses in particular — but it’s sort of awkward as a mechanism for constituent response for elected officials… or anyone else asking a question with more than a 128 character answer.

I primarily use Facebook for leisure — keeping in touch with friends and family.  Occasionally I venture into one of the Oak Ridge groups, but it’s not something I monitor every day.  And I’m not about to start.

Today, a question was posed on FB about the current year’s school budget, specifically, about the dollar amount requested of City Council.  The full approved school budget is here, but folks unaccustomed to working with such a document often have questions.  It’s confusing at first — it took me a couple of years to get comfortable with it.

So, on to the question:

Jay Brandon The FY2015 proposed budget is requesting a total of $56,699,793. Page 9 of the budget shows the 2014 General Fund Balance (Budget) to be $51,659,006. However, page 125 shows the 2014 General Fund Balance (Budget) to be $48,300,318. If page 9 is correct, the Schools are requesting a $5,333,287 increase. If the numbers on page 125 are correct, then they are actually requesting an increase of $8,399,475.

First, the School Board is not a department of the City, but a separate elected entity with its own distinct powers determined by State law and City Charter.  The Board does not have to get permission for the overall budget amount; that is our duty, and ours alone.  We receive funding from the federal government (0.462% in the current year), the State (42%), Anderson and Roane Counties (27.7%), and the City of Oak Ridge (28.7%).

We do, each year, make a request of City Council for funds needed to fulfill our mission: to provide the best possible education for every child in Oak Ridge.  City Council is empowered to accept or reject our budget, having control over any increased City contributions to the schools budget, but has no authority over line-item expenditures or revenues beyond the City’s appropriation.

On p. 9 in the PDF (it’s p. 5 according to page numbers in the lower right corner), we show revenues of $51,659,006 for FY2014 — the current year.  That includes revenues not only from the Fed, State, and Local Governments, but also a significant transfer from our undesignated fund balance (kind of like our savings account/emergency fund, of which we’re required by the state to maintain at least 3% of our total budget).  Fund balance money can only be spent on certain things, like one-time expenses.  They can’t be used for salaries, and should not be used for recurring expenses.

The numbers on PDF p. 125 (print copy, p. E-8) refer to the revenue sources, not including any fund balance transfers.  That’s the difference.  We also had some smaller budget adjustments to include some grants we didn’t anticipate, but used to good effect.

In short, the only number that should be of concern in the current discussion about whether City Council should fund the School Board’s budget request is found on PDF p. 5 (print p. 1), line item 49810:  City General Fund Transfers.  That is the only number over which City Council has any control.

The School Board cannot dictate how many police officers we need, what kind of fire trucks to buy, or whether to spend red-light camera money on repainting crosswalks and migraine-inducing LED stop signs by the Marina.  Similarly, City Council cannot dictate how many teachers we hire, what we pay the Superintendent, or which textbooks we purchase.  We each have our jobs to do, and both sides have quite enough on our plates without meddling with the other’s business.

If it were up to me, I’d say put speed cameras in every school zone in the City and designate all of the revenue to the schools.   But I don’t have that authority, and I can live with that.

The question is, is it worth a sizeable tax increase to take our schools to the next level — way ahead of those around us — to attract the kind of residents who used to live here, and who could live here again?  That’s a shared goal between the City and the School Board; we need to attract more of the highly educated people who work here, to live here.  The STEM initiative and 1:1 computing is a big-time goal that I think would accomplish what both want.

Our tax rate in the 1980’s, before the DOE buy-out, was upwards of $4… and we had more of the folks we want to attract then, than we do now.  We had a heckuva lot more retail, too.  Just food for thought.