Note: This story was last updated at 10:10 a.m. Nov. 3.
School board candidates at two forums this campaign season expressed optimism that school officials will be able to continue to provide school bus transportation to most students in the next school year, and several said they would support a property tax rate increase if it were deemed necessary.
Bob Eby, Oak Ridge Board of Education vice chair, cited delayed staff raises and textbook purchases as well as capital project needs. Eby helped lead moves this summer to restore bus transportation to preschool students and then other students after the area where bus service is not provided was temporarily expanded to 1.5 miles as part of cost-cutting measures in June.
In August, Karen Gagliano, Oak Ridge Schools director of business and support services, said the $500,000 in fund balance money used to restore transportation and the delayed purchase of textbooks, among other things, means the school system could start the Fiscal Year 2015 budget discussions with a $1.8 million deficit, before anything new is added.
“I will ask for a tax increase next year,” Eby said. “We’ve put (off) all we can put off.”
Eby wasn’t alone in his support for a potential tax increase. Candidate Mike Mahathy said he would support a tax increase for long-overdue teacher raises if required.
“Sometimes tax increases are necessary,” Mahathy said. “Based on what I know, we do need a tax increase.”
Candidate Jean Hiser also said she would support an increase if needed.
Of the three school board members who have expiring terms, Eby is the only one seeking re-election to the Oak Ridge Board of Education in the municipal election on Tuesday. School board members Dan DiGregorio and Jenny Richter are not.
The six candidates at the two recent forums generally favored giving teachers a pay raise if extra money was available because of a tax increase.
“We must give our teachers a raise,” candidate Laura McLean said.
“You have to reward those folks,” candidate Paige Marshall said.
The candidates, who also included Andy Howe, had mixed opinions on the lowest appropriate grade level for children using so-called 1:1 devices, with about half favoring a kindergarten start and the other half recommending a fifth-grade start.
Eby said he fully supports the technology initiative, while Howe said he does not believe it is the highest priority.
The candidates were also mixed on whether the BOE should have taxing authority.
But all said “yes” to allowing K9 searches at Oak Ridge High School, and they seemed to agree that there are significant fiscal issues facing the school system, including a potential $1.2 million budget shortfall in the next budget.
If any new money were received, several candidates said they supported using some of it for technology, possibly for the so-called 1:1 initiative, although their support could hinge on competing priorities and how much money were available.
Like City Council candidates, the school board candidates expressed an interest in “healing” the relationship between the BOE and the Council.
Marshall said school officials need a few months to look at the budget before coming up with a bus route solution that works better than what was proposed this summer, when the so-called “parent responsibility zone” (where bus service is not provided) was briefly expanded to 1.5 miles before being returned to earlier levels.
“We’re just going to have to make another pass at it and do better than we did before,” Marshall said.
“Safety certainly is paramount,” Eby said. “This gives us time to do that.”
“The safety of our children comes first,” McLean said, pointing out that Oak Ridge has many hills and places without sidewalks.
“I’m confident that, come next August, each child that wants to ride the bus, needs to ride the bus, will be able to do so,” Mahathy said.
The candidates responded to a question about the 70-year-old Oak Ridge Preschool, which has reached the point when, like an old car, school officials say, repair costs are exceeding the value of the building. The Oak Ridge Board of Education will weigh options for the building tonight (Monday, November 3).
“We are at a crossroads,” Mahathy said.
“It comes down to triage,” Howe said.
“We’re going to have to find (an answer), and we’re going to have to find one quickly,” Marshall said.
Two other candidates, Laurie Paine and Aaron Wells, were not present at the two recent forums, one a PTA-PTO Council forum and the other an Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce forum, although there were other forums later.
See the 2014 Election Section on Oak Ridge Today for more information on the candidates.
See coverage of a previous BOE candidate forum here.