Note: This story was updated at 12:15 p.m.
Oak Ridge school officials made it clear last week that they’re not in favor of budget cuts, and at least a few suggested they might support a property tax rate increase to prevent reductions in staff and programs.
Earlier this month, the Oak Ridge Board of Education was presented three different budget options to start the annual fiscal discussions. One is known as the “Losing Students, Families, and Staff” budget; the second is known as the “Retaining Students, Families, and Staff” budget; and the third is known as “Attracting Students, Families, and Staff.”
The presentations outline a range of potential cuts including reducing nursing jobs and teaching positions; eliminating the Family Resource Center, elementary strings program, and preschool transportation; and increasing class sizes and stretching the student walk zone to one mile. They also include a range of potential benefits, including starting a digital technology initiative known as 1:1, hiring technology personnel, adding special education and custodial staff, and giving employees a 2 percent pay raise.
School officials suggested they’re not considering the cuts unless they’re unable to get more revenue from city officials.
“I’m not recommending those cuts at this time,” Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers said during a special school board meeting on Wednesday. “All of these have consequences.”
Although they didn’t vote, the school board generally seemed to endorse the middle-of-the-road option, the “Retaining Students, Families, and Staff” budget. That is the budget that Borchers said he would recommend, at a minimum. It could require a $0.42 property tax to avoid cuts. That would translate into another $8.74 per month for the owner of a $100,000 home and an extra $17.48 each month for someone who owns a $200,000 home.
“I believe that the retain budget is, at a minimum, what this community needs,” Borchers said. “I think we need to invest in our schools.”
Based on feedback from the Wednesday meeting, school administrators are expected to present a budget to the school board during a 5:30 p.m. meeting today at the School Administration Building on New York Avenue.
Board members offered a range of suggestions that could be used to shape the budget expected to be presented tonight. It appeared that a majority of the board, if not all of them, oppose cuts.
“I do not favor any decrease in programs,” Vice Chair Bob Eby said.
“The cuts are getting deep now,” said board member Angi Agle, who said education officials have been cutting for years and years.
Board member Jenny Richter appeared to have the most concerns, saying, among other things, that she opposes staff cuts, doesn’t support reductions in such positions as secretaries and nurses, doesn’t support increasing the size of the student walk zone without a study and more input, and hasn’t endorsed the proposed technology portion of the budget presentation. She said school nurses are helpful and the fourth-grade strings program is valuable, and she can’t support the addition of 13 technology positions, although she agrees that technology can enhance education.
Board member Dan DiGregorio said he doesn’t want to reduce staff either and does not want to offer pay raises if jobs are cut.
Board member Angi Agle said she prefers the “Attracting Students, Families, and Staff” budget, but that budget could require another $5 million or a $0.57 tax rate increase to avoid cuts.
“The realist in me says that is not going to happen,” Agle said.
Eby said some parts of the technology initiatives could be implemented slower than anticipated in order to reduce costs. As an example, he made a motion to reduce by 50 percent the cost of replacing projectors.
There was brief discussion over the likelihood of any tax rate increase this election year. More than half the seats on the five-member school board and seven-member City Council are up for election this year. In the meantime, city officials have been working toward a budget with no rate hike.
DiGregorio said there hasn’t been a tax increase since 2009, and “we’re way overdue for a property tax increase.”
“I’m not going to let the fact that I’m running dictate what I think is best for the Oak Ridge school system,” Eby said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.