Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers presented three budget proposals for fiscal year 2015 to the school board on Wednesday. The proposals suggest that deep cuts will need to be made to attract new students, families, and staff to the district, and to keep those already here. Borchers introduced the proposals by stating that the district will be “tightening our belt.”
Students, families, and staff were the main theme of the budgets proposed on Wednesday. In fact, each was presented to show a different budget scenario that would lose, retain, or attract the group. The school board will review two budgets intended to retain and attract those groups, as well as a third expected to result in a loss of students, family, and staff. All of the budgets proposed generate revenue through expenditure cuts.
All three budget proposals suggest property tax rate increases to offset the cuts, with the rate hikes ranging from 14 to 57 cents.
With about $1.2 million in cost savings, the first proposal has the lowest budget target, and it was referred to as the “losing students-families-staff” budget. It proposed the fewest system-wide cuts, but still suggested that reductions are needed. Those expenditure cuts include increasing class sizes and reducing teaching positions and transportation services. Transportation reductions would increase the student “walk zone” to one mile and end preschool transportation altogether. This proposal would not be able to fund the district’s 1:1 device integration program.
The second budget, said to “retain students-families-staff,” is targeted to bring $3.7 million in revenue through cost savings. This budget would still make cuts to staff and transportation, but would allow the planned 1:1 device integration to begin, which would be cut from the “losing” budget. This budget allows a 2 percent wage raise system-wide, but still calls for staff reductions, including reducing the assistant principal position at Oak Ridge High School as well as extra-curricular stipends and staff development reductions.
The various reductions of that plan will allow an additional custodian “to maintain attractive buildings” and permit the hiring of technology personnel required to maintain the district’s digital transformation.
Lastly, the budget to “attract students-families-staff” brings $5.1 million in revenue from cuts. This budget requires the most reductions, but aims to bring the most benefits to the schools. In addition to the benefits of adopting the budget aimed to “retain,” the “attract” budget would allow more special education teachers, math, and reading specialists and an “elementary behavior class.”
However, the price tag to “attract” is very high and, even after reducing schools and departments to the minimum required through state standards, the reductions would bring only $4.6 million in revenue. This means that the district would need an extra investment of about $500,000.
Tax revenue was suggested to offset budget cuts, but the city is hoping to avoid tax increases in the coming fiscal year.
“The community as a whole has some difficult choices to make,” Borchers said. “As superintendent, I presented a budget that contains the necessary things needed for our students to be successful now and in the future. I also believe that investing in our schools will help us attract new families into our great community.
“Without increase in revenue, the ORS will face drastic budget cuts, which will impact the future of the schools and our ability to attract new families to our community.”
Board Chairman Keys Fillauer says that he doesn’t see any other way to fund the budget, no matter which proposal is chosen in the end, but he doesn’t like having to make cuts, either.
“We can make cuts and fund some things that we want,” he said. “But when we do make the cuts we’re losing what we have.”
He said that this year’s cuts are probably a little higher than previous years, but he believes that it’s necessary for the district to make the changes required to offer exemplary education to students. He hopes that the community will continue to be supportive of the education system.
“I really think it’s time that we work together as a council and a community to determine what we want our educational system to be and (the proposal) gives us the opportunity to do that,” Fillauer said. He said he appreciates the way the superintendent has put together different scenarios instead of the typical one-scenario budget typically proposed, as it gives the council the opportunity to “really understand” what the system needs.
Borchers recommended adopting, at a minimum, the proposal to “retain students-families-staff.” The board seemed to agree that the district should make some serious adjustments in order to continue leading the state in academic achievement, but several meetings are scheduled in the coming weeks to allow the board to work on the budget before presenting it to the Oak Ridge City Council on June 2.
The next special school board meeting on the budget is scheduled for May 21 at 5:30 p.m. in the School Administration Building on New York Avenue. The full proposal presentation can be found here.
The next fiscal year starts July 1.
Sara Wise is a freelance contributor to Oak Ridge Today.