The Oak Ridge City Council has agreed to meet in a special session next week to try to resolve a $250,000 school funding shortfall that education officials claim could lead to a loss of millions of dollars in state funding and a temporary school shutdown if it’s not resolved by Oct. 1.
But Council members want documentation to accompany the request, Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson told Superintendent Bruce Borchers in a Sept. 11 letter. It should include an explanation of why the money is needed, information on decisions made by the Oak Ridge Board of Education to close schools on Oct. 1 if the funding is not obtained, and copies of any formal notice from the Tennessee education commissioner that he has agreed to withhold all of the state funding for Oak Ridge Schools starting in October, the city manager said.
“This will be utilized for our records and audit requirements,” Watson said.
￼Council could consider the request in one special meeting next week, Watson said. But the schools need to respond in a letter by noon Monday, he said.
School officials said the Oak Ridge system has failed a state maintenance of effort test that requires local funding to remain at least the same from year to year. After some budget adjustments, there is a $250,000 shortfall, school officials said, and they want the city to cover it. It’s the equivalent of a 2.5-cent property tax rate increase, although it’s too late for a tax increase this year.
In a press release this week, school officials said that failing to correct the problem by Oct. 1 will result in a loss of Basic Education Program, or BEP, funding of $1.87 million per month. If the shortfall is not resolved, education officials said, they would have no choice but to temporarily shut down schools on Oct. 1.
But city officials have expressed skepticism that all the BEP funding would be withheld over what they said works out to be a shortfall of $25,000 per month during a 10-month school year. In his letter to Borchers, Watson said the education commissioner has the discretion to withhold all or part of the state funds.
Watson said last week that the city needed more information before acting. Among other things, he said, the city hasn’t received an official notice from the state and wouldn’t be delinquent until Oct. 1.
So far, Tennessee Department of Education officials have not said much about the issue.
“We are starting to have meetings with various people regarding this situation, but at this point, we don’t have anything to report,” said Kelli Gauthier, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Education.
Watson and Borchers used similar language late this week to express optimism that the funding issue can be resolved.
“It is my hope that we will have this situation resolved before Oct. 1,” Borchers said in a Friday morning e-mail. “The City Council and Oak Ridge Board of Education have indicated that they would like to address the MOE (maintenance of effort) matter positively for the benefit of Oak Ridge students, parents, and all concerned.”
Oak Ridge residents have had concerns about what would happen to students, teachers, and parents during a temporary school shutdown, and how much notice would have to be given to teachers and staff.
“Although most of our time has been spent on resolving this MOE situation collaboratively…we have been talking about the questions you posed in your e-mail but do not have definitive answers,” Borchers said.
Watson told Borchers that the Council hopes to resolve the shortfall.
“Although some questions remain regarding local funding, the City Council is prepared to assist the Oak Ridge Board of Education in meeting their responsibility to the Tennessee Department of Education,” Watson said.
Read Watson’s letter to Borchers here.
Note: This story was last updated at 8:15 p.m.