A lot of incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate, information has been disseminated to the public regarding the Fiscal Year 2015 city and school budgets. Such inconsistencies compound citizen frustrations as they begin to feel the impact of both bodies’ decisions. I would like to offer some clarification along with supporting resources, which will also be hyperlinked within my website, trinabaughn.com.
First, let me address the claim that council is “not supportive” of our schools. I assure you that each and every one of us actively supports the education of Oak Ridge children with both our private and public contributions of time and money.
Furthermore, when factoring in debt payments, council allocates roughly half of all property taxes toward our schools. In fact, there are only four other communities in all of the state that out fund Oak Ridge at the local level. And even though council did not increase the tax rate this year, we did increase funding to the schools by over $500,000 due to the high school mortgage obligation shift. And contrary to claims that funding levels have been flat or declined, a simple comparison from 2005–2014 shows that total school spending has increased from $42.3 million to $55.5 million.
Second, both city and school representatives are guilty of understating their employees’ history of pay increases. City employees have received pay raises four out of the last five years. Teachers, too, have received raises every year of the last five years. The range and form of those raises is worthy of further discussion, and I intend on broaching the subject in our next joint Council/BOE meeting.
Finally, I would like to address the myth that council holds any responsibility for the cuts in transportation. As I stated in our recent meeting, the BOE planned to cut transportation even if we had given them every penny they asked for. In this slide presentation that was sent out to all Linden parents on May 15 via the schools’ email server, transportation cuts are mentioned in each of the three scenarios, which included tax increases ranging from 14 to 57 cents. Ms. Agle has attempted to refute this claim by providing an alternative interpretation of this file. I would encourage the public to carefully review the slides and draw their own conclusions.
I remind Oak Ridgers that for months, the BOE heavily campaigned via the press, their taxpayer funded robocalls and the Chamber of Commerce urging people to press council to increase funding specifically for a multi-million dollar technology initiative. And though they have since dropped the 1:1 initiative, they still spent nearly $1.75 million of their reserves for technology from the funds they tapped in March.
I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that both the city and the schools have funded wants over needs. For years, I have specifically identified those inefficiencies in columns such as those viewable here and here. Until both the city and the schools demonstrate better stewardship of taxpayer monies by truly prioritizing, we cannot, in good conscience, ask the taxpayers for more money.
Since I contend that there is money available on both sides, one might ask why I would not support simply transferring another $300,000 to the schools to fund transportation. Quite frankly, I would be happy to support that if it were truly that simple. But it’s not. For one, as we saw with the BOE’s threat to shut down the schools last October over a maintenance of effort matter, the city is permanently obligated by law to fund them at the same level every year. Therefore, any funding increase becomes an obligation into perpetuity, which translates into a permanent tax increase.
Also, because council has no authority to dictate how the BOE allocates their funds, we have no ability to hold them to any commitment they may make regarding a specific expenditure. Though they might very well reinstate transportation this year, there would be nothing stopping them from cutting it again next year. In fact, historically, they have done that very thing with the high school mortgage, which resulted in a shift of their obligation over to the city. We (you) now have to pay $10 million more than you committed to in the 2004 referendum.
In addition to the expenses I’ve already listed, in recent history, the BOE has added to their administrative staff costs by over $100,000, sent 21 staff members to Las Vegas, hired a superintendent at over $30,000 more than his predecessor, built a $1 million data center, and entered into a $479,000 capital lease for unspecified technology. Considering how the BOE has managed their existing funds and how heavily burdened our citizens already are by our tax and utility rates, council simply cannot justify increasing their access to additional taxpayer monies.
One final note on the transportation cuts. It is not as complicated as some would have you believe. It only takes two board members to call a special meeting and three of them to immediately restore these cuts. Just as easily and quickly as they “found” $200,000 in non-recurring funds to restore access for 500 students, the BOE can find the other $300,000 to restore transportation for all. They could start by tapping their $3.6 million reserve fund.
Trina Baughn is an Oak Ridge City Council member.