The budget presented is one that "would fund all the services that are now in place. Cuts would hurt the quality of education. All that is in the budget is fixed costs and the cost of new schools and teacher required by state law because of growth," Davis said.
The board voted 3-1 to send their budget back, with Zone 3 Board member Don Weathers casting the lone opposing vote. He said he was concerned that the commission’s finance committee would take back the 20 cents they offered last week.
Commission’s education committee has refused to take any action on the school budget three times and finally last week agreed to pass on a recommendation to only fund as much as was funded last year.
After the education committee’s recommendation, the finance panel agreed to recommend a tax increase of 20 cents to fund part of the increased need. It would take a 34-cent increase to fund the school system’s entire budget.
When the county commission convened on Monday night, there were about 200 people, mostly parents, students and school employees, in the standing-room-only meeting room to listen to commissioners’ discussion.
Before the meeting started, County Mayor Robert Dedman asked one woman to remove a sign she was carrying supporting the school budget from the room, but three children wearing T-shirts with slogan were allowed to remain.
One boy’s shirt said, "Can I have textbooks? on the front and "Am I worth it?" on the back.
One of the things Davis said would possibly have to be cut if the full school budget was not funded was the purchase of new social science textbooks. The ones currently in use are copyright 1995, he said.
He also told the commission that he didn’t see how Wilson County could live up to its mission statement to "provide a world class education" if the county didn’t fund the budget.
He explained the increase in the budget was the result of rising costs for fuel and utilities, growth in enrollment and the opening of a new school, plus a $400,000 cut in the state share of the school budget.
He listed possible consequences of cutting the school budget by $3.5 million as would be required to get under the amount represented by the finance committee’s recommended 20-cent tax increase for education.
They included cutting out athletics, since the schools couldn’t pay coaches, not buying textbooks, eliminating assistant principals and moving those people to classrooms, where newest hired teachers could then be laid off, and eliminating teachers’ aides and nurses.
District 1 Commissioner Larry West said he was for education, but what he was opposed to was wasteful spending, "You have teachers making $40 to $45,000 a year and you want 34 cents more for education," he said. He also suggested that Davis cut his own salary.
Davis suggested an independent audit of the school budget, and if the audit showed any ways to cut the budget he said he would be glad do so.
He also explained that the school system has a contract with employees and couldn’t cut salaries if they wanted to do so.
Davis had already pointed out to the commission that audits of the past 10 years had showed no waste or inappropriate spending in the school system.
District 3 Commissioner Fred Weston also said he thought there was money that could be cut or "found" somewhere, but Davis told him also that the school system has no money hidden out in file drawers or waste in their budget.
District 22 Commissioner Heather Scott asked how much the school system had in its fund balance.
Davis told her there was about $4 million in that account and that the state required the school system to maintain at least 3 percent of the annual budget in that account for emergencies.
District 15 Commissioner Mike Justice questioned why the board had used the remainder of the secondary schools bond to buy land instead of using that money for salaries, and Davis explained that the money in question could only be used to build or repair secondary schools.
District 19 Commissioner L.T. Jenkins asked if the statement Davis made that if the school budget was not increased the board would lose at least 57 employees was a scare tactic.
Davis again assured the commission that this is the real situation and added if the budget is not funded on time he will have to close the schools entirely on Oct. 1.
District 14 commissioner Jeff Joines told the commission he had visited four schools in the district he represents.
He said he came away from his visit thinking, "These are people who want to work. Let’s see if we can’t make this work." He added that he thinks everybody in those schools is vital to the schools. But since the board voted not to cut the budget, he now believes, "The board doesn’t want to work with us."
Davis then added, "If the budget goes through as recommended, there will be cuts, people will lose jobs. A member of the board told me nobody would believe this until it actually happened."
District 20 Commissioner Annette Stafford then pointed out that the 2007-2008 school budget was 66 percent of the total county budget. (The operating budget is $1.09 of the county’s $2.23 tax rate, but the county must also pay for debt reduction on the school building bonds.)
Davis noted that the schools account for about 70 to 75 percent of the county’s expenses. "We have 2,000 employees. All the rest of the departments combined don’t employ that many."
District 13 Commissioner Clint Thomas added one last comment before the commission voted to accept the director’s report and close discussion.
He said he had been attending some economic classes and the first thing each of the presenters said was, "The first thing a company looks at when it looks at a place to relocate, to build a new plant, is the schools. If we take away from the schools we all lose," he concluded.
Staff wrier Connie Esh may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.