Federal funds to Oak Ridge Schools could be cut five percent starting July 1 under the so-called sequester, and that’s led to staff reductions in the special education program.
Four positions would be cut at Oak Ridge High School and three elementary schools—Glenwood, Linden, and Willow Brook—under a budget approved by school board members on second and final reading Thursday. Two of the reductions would result in job losses. One is a teaching assistant position at Linden, and the other is a teaching assistant job at Oak Ridge High School.
Parents with children in the program have said they are concerned about how the students might struggle if they don’t continue to get the one-on-one help they need.
School officials said they understand the parents’ concerns, but there’s not much they can do without asking the city for more money.
“It’s not ideal, but we’ll make it work,” said Hal Jernigan, Oak Ridge Schools director of special education. That program is losing five percent of its funding due to the federal spending cuts, which were approved in the Budget Control Act of 2011 and began taking effect March 1.
The cuts in special education funding were one of several reductions that generated public opposition during a public hearing on the Oak Ridge Schools budget on Tuesday.
During that meeting, the school board approved three changes to the budget. One would give a one-time $500 bonus to employees who will not receive a “step” pay increase in the coming year, another would pay $50,000 to help cover the costs of hiring two school resource officers at the city’s two middle schools, and the third would restore $67,000 in funding for technological needs, including software and new computers at the middle schools.
School officials hope the city will match the $50,000 for SRO funding. However, it’s not clear yet if Oak Ridge City Council members will agree to do that or if city officials will agree that $50,000 is enough to cover the costs of even one SRO. The school board’s SRO funding proposal did not include the costs of equipping an SRO with a police car.
School board members suggested city officials should generally consider spending more money on the schools.
Oak Ridge Board of Education Vice Chair Bob Eby said the city’s portion of school system funding has dropped from 41.7 percent in 1982 to about 28 percent this year.
He said the city has proposed spending a little less on the schools in the new fiscal year than it did five years ago. In Fiscal Year 2010, the city spent $13.98 million on schools, but in Fiscal Year 2014, which starts July 1, the city has proposed spending $13.86 million, a drop of more than $100,000, Eby said.
School officials said it will take work to rally the community and raise funding levels for education.
“This community has supported the Oak Ridge Schools every year because it is the greatest asset,” Eby said. “It is sad that we’re having to make the cuts that we’re making.”
The school system’s budget will be presented to the Oak Ridge City Council on Tuesday, when Council members will consider the municipal budget on second and final reading. So far, Council members haven’t approved any extra spending for the schools.
School officials have said revenues could be down about $1 million in the next fiscal year and 18 jobs could be cut, including roughly eight teaching positions. Roughly six employees could lose their jobs. Other positions could be eliminated through retirements and attrition.
Oak Ridge Interim Superintendent Bob Smallridge said the school system also cut about 18 positions last year.
“This has been an ongoing issue, and it hurts,” school board member Dan DiGregorio said.