Johnson City

Commissioners try to find funds for Johnson City schools

Commissioners try to find funds for Johnson City schools

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - Johnson City is a day away from meeting and perhaps making a final decision on this year's budget.

At the forefront of the debate are cuts to school funding, which could lead to the elimination of athletic and arts programs.

The Johnson City Commission decided at their last meeting to pass, in the second reading, a budget that only gives $500,000 to the school system. City schools originally asked for $3.4 million.

They have cut back their request over the last week to $1.1 million but commissioners told us they're still divided over the right way to make those funds available.

"There are those on the commission who feel you pare back the budget and make people live within a certain amount of money and there are those that feel you need to continue the attainment level of the school system because it is a hugely important part of the community," said Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin.

The division started over property taxes. Van Brocklin proposed raising taxes $.22 but it was shot down by three of the other commissioners.

The tax increase is on the table as one way to make up the $1.1 million in funding the school system needs.

"You can shift some costs and take them out of the fund balance, you can simply cut back programs and personnel or you can talk about a tax increase to accommodate what those recurring needs of the school system are," said Van Brocklin.

The school system told us they don't want to reach further into their fund balance, and they've already started making cuts. We're told those cuts will continue if they don't get the money.

Van Brocklin said the second round of reductions is what city residents should be worried about.

"Cutting arts and music, cutting out athletics, cutting the very positions that allowed the school to reach the attainment level for our students that they have," said Van Brocklin.

He told us the school system's request "demonstrated seriousness and demonstrated legitimacy."

One of his opponents in the budget battle, Commissioner David Tomita, said the school can pay for their shortfall with their own $4 million in savings.

"It's like letting the lights get turned off with $5,000 in your checking account," said Tomita.

Tomita also told us it's a misconception that property taxes are the main source of funding for the school system. He said Johnson City is more dependent on sales tax.

The school system has also received a 4.2 percent increase in funds, on average, every year since 2001, according to Tomita.

He told us the more than $30,000 cut from the school system's athletic program is only a very small part of the overall budget for the schools.

"All I can say is if the headline was $30,000 cut out of maintenance supplies and central office administration costs, I doubt our phones would've rung at all," Tomita said.

Despite that, Tomita told us he's taking the issue seriously and plans to work with Van Brocklin and the other commissioners to create the $1.1 million the schools are asking for.

"I think that's something we can deal with," he said. "Again, I think it's going to take a variety of solutions to make it work but I'm very confident we'll walk out of there with that covered."

We also talked with school board chair Kathy Hall who told us they alerted commissioners in advance they would need extra funds this year. Hall said this year federal grants and stimulus money has run out and they've reached a point where they don't want to dip any further into their fund balance.

She told us the next round of cuts will affects student performance across the district.

"Even that $1.1 [million] represents some serious cuts to educational money," Hall said. "We cut more than half our textbook budget, we cut some of our school security HEROES program, we cut some positions at the high school and at Liberty Bell, we did some serious cuts already so we're just trying to save some."

The final budget meeting is Friday night at 6:00 p.m. at city hall. If commissioners do not pass the budget, they will have to start this process all over again.

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