Note: This story was last updated at 11:15 a.m. June 17.
Two last-minute attempts to pass smaller-than-requested tax increases for the Oak Ridge Schools failed on Monday, and the City Council voted 4-2 to approve a budget that does not raise taxes in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The decision to not raise taxes for the seventh year in a row came after a parade of residents in two meetings this month asked Council to fully fund the schools. Many said they moved here because of the schools, and they said the educational system is Oak Ridge’s primary asset. School teachers, administrators, and school board members also said they support a greater investment in the schools.
“Flatline budgets will eventually produce flatline results,” said Steve Reddick, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Jefferson Middle School and co-president of the Oak Ridge Education Association.
The schools had requested $17.9 million from the city, but the no-tax-increase budget lowered that amount to $14.6 million. School officials had previously said they will have to “go back to the drawing board” and make cuts if Council did not approve the tax rate increase. It’s not clear yet what cuts might be made. The Oak Ridge Board of Education could discuss changes to the school system’s budget, which was approved in May, during a Monday evening meeting.
Some speakers in the two City Council budget meetings this month objected to the requested tax increase, with some saying they couldn’t afford it and others saying it might discourage residents or businesses from moving here. They argued that the economy is in bad shape, and the city has a lot of debt—much of it for the renovated Oak Ridge High School—and has had recent increases in water and sewer rates.
“Right now, this city cannot afford more costs for property tax owners,” City Council member Anne Garcia Garland said. “We have a school system that is exceptionally well-funded.”
“Where are we going to get the money from?” asked resident Walter Zobel, who has been in Oak Ridge since 1954. He said his pension has not increased and his Social Security has only gone up by 1.2 percent.
Others said they supported a technology initiative known as 1:1 that would eventually provide an electronic learning device, possibly a Microsoft Surface tablet computer, to every student—but not a tax increase to pay for it.
The Oak Ridge Board of Education passed a budget in May that requested a 37-cent property tax increase to start rolling out the 1:1 initiative, hire technology personnel and other staff, comply with the reporting requirements of the federal Affordable Care Act, and give employees a 2 percent pay raise, among other things.
Meanwhile, the city staff had recommended a municipal budget that did not include a tax rate increase. That budget was based on input from Council, and it includes a 2 percent pay raise for city workers. It also includes the city’s annual transfer to the schools.
The City Council on Monday rejected separate proposals from Council members Chuck Hope and Charlie Hensley to raise the property tax rate by either 12 cents or 10 cents to give more money to the schools. Both proposals failed in 2-4 votes, with only Hope and Hensley voting “yes.”
“Our schools have been, and continue to be, one of the biggest attributes,” Hope said. “If we continue to tighten the shoestrings or belt, something will break.”
Hope and Hensley cast the two votes against the budget that did not include the tax rate increase. Council member Trina Baughn was absent.
Reddick said the funding from the city to the schools has fallen over the years from 40 percent to 28 percent. Meanwhile, school system costs have risen and new requirements have been imposed by state and federal mandates, he said.
Monday’s vote was the second and final reading of the budget. The City Council approved the budget on first reading on June 9. They did not consider any tax rate increases during that meeting.
The tax rate is now $2.39 per $100 of assessed value. The 37-cent tax rate increase would have raised it to $2.76 and could have cost the owner of a $200,000 home another $15 per month.
More information will be added as it becomes available.