Grayson schools still need to trim spending

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — Nearly 75 people packed the Grayson County courthouse for a public hearing on the 2009-10 budget for the school division.

Twelve people spoke during the 45-minute hearing, all of whom asked the board of supervisors to consider passing the entire $4.6 million budget requested by educators.

Prior to opening the floor for discussion, Supervisors’ Chairman Mike Maynard made a few remarks about where the board stands with the school budget process.

“As you know, the school board and board of supervisors have very different roles,” he told the crowd. “The school board is charged with operating the school system, and as they should, strive to deliver the best that they can.”

Maynard added that the board of supervisors is responsible for the financial oversight of all county functions, and for taxing the citizens to support those operations.

“It’s a checks and balances system that is necessary, and that our form of government depends on,” he said.

Over the past several meetings, the two boards have agreed on many issues, and disagreed on others, but Maynard noted that no decisions have been made regarding the budget and none will be made until the budget is approved on May 26.

“We are still in the information-gathering stage,” Maynard exclaimed. “No decision has been made.”

Regarding comments that the county government was not supportive of the school system, Maynard said the two boards have worked closely to bring improvements to the school system.

“By our actions, we have demonstrated that we are supporters of education and no one can take that away from us,” he said. “Most recently, we took on over $20 million in new education expenses associated with facilities. We did it because we believed in it, and not because we were forced into it.”

He added that any suggestion that the board has not been a supporter of Grayson schools is “misguided.”

Grayson Education Association President Rebecca Absher spoke first, on behalf of the children of the county.

Absher asked the board to stop using the students and school personnel as “pawns in this political chess game.”

The school board submitted a budget that should be passed, she said, and any cuts would affect teacher salaries and be “tragic, unacceptable and unnecessary.”

Absher asked the supervisors to do what they promised and make education a priority.

“Invest in Grayson County’s future, its children,” she said. “Be a hero and pass the school board’s budget.”

Arnold Hash, an employee of the school system, also spoke in favor of the budget.

While he understood that times were difficult and there may be other options to consider, Hash said the county could not sacrifice the greatest resource it has — the children and their education.

“I implore you to fund the schools of our county with level funding, and in doing so enable us to do the job we all love to do without worrying about a reduction in our salaries, decreases in our insurance or reduction in force policies in which our staff would lose their jobs,” he concluded.

Karen Blevins, principal at the Grayson Career and Technical Education (CATE) Center, spoke on behalf of her programs, noting that any cuts would have negative effects on all programs.

She added that 11 different programs were offered and approximately 130 students would graduate this month with a certificate from the CATE Center.

“I fear budget cuts could not only mean the elimination of courses, but a few programs,” she said. “It would limit the options our students have to explore their interests and our students would suffer.”

Bobby Cheeks, principal at Grayson County High School, also encouraged the supervisors to fully fund the school system’s request.

“It’s essential that we receive full funding,” Cheeks said. “You can’t go wrong with supporting education.”

Roy Anders, maintenance coordinator for the school system, noted that if level funding was not approved, there would be no money in the budget for emergency repairs.

Anders said parking lots need repaving, new bleachers were needed at the football field and roofs needed replacing. “Schools need electrical upgrading and plumbing that never quits leaking needs to be replaced.”

He said he understood that everything couldn’t be done in one year, but if no maintenance money was budgeted, the repairs and improvements would fall even further behind.

Susie Funk, principal at Providence Elementary, spoke as a lifelong resident of Grayson — as well as a taxpayer, a parent and an educator.

Funk said Grayson ranked 18th out of 19 school divisions in Region 7 when it comes to funding for education. “So when are we going to make education a priority for the sake of our children? You have the ability to make it happen.”

Dennis Roop, transportation coordinator, spoke about the $375,000 the school system turned over to the county in the last budget year, in good faith that it would be returned to purchase buses.

The 2009-10 budget draft includes no money for buses, and Roop said he feared the county was going to fall further behind if some new buses weren’t purchased soon.

Other speakers included Scott Lamb, Patrick Lindsey and Doug Osbourne — all of whom have children in the school system.

“This is where my taxes are paid, this is where I want my family raised,” Lamb said. “I think I speak for every parent that has attended this meeting when I say thanks for what you’ve done so far, but don’t stop! Continue to improve!”

Lindsey spoke about how it is evident that the school system is falling behind. “As minimal funding continues, I wonder when we’ll catch up,” he asked.

John Alexander, principal at Baywood Elementary, and Susan Mitchell principal at Independence Elementary, were the final speakers.

Alexander said he has never seen a school system turn over the amount of money that Grayson has in recent years and that “it’s an amazing feat for this school system, at level funding, to be able to turn that back over to [the supervisors] in this facilities plan.”

Mitchell talked about the “huge” sacrifice her students made when Elk Creek was closed early and they were moved in Independence Elementary.

While IES is considered the “new” school in the county, it’s more than 30 years old.

As a visual aid, Mitchell showed the board of supervisors a coffee can with a picture of several students from IES on it. “I feel this county has kicked the can down the road when it comes to funding education. I’ve made this can that keeps getting kicked down the road… it’s not just a can, it’s kids… and they really matter to us!”

With no further comments, the public hearing was closed.

Later in the meeting, supervisors again brought up the school funding, saying they felt accusations that the county was minimally funding the school system were untrue.

Supervisors’ Vice Chairman Larry Bartlett said he didn’t believe anyone could say the money provided to the school system each year was “minimal funding.”

He noted that the county is currently spending $16.3 million for new buildings and had projected to spend at least $200,000 more than the $3.9 million minimum local funding level that Grayson must provide in order to receive full state funding.

Maynard said the amount the county expects to give the school system this year amounts to 110 percent of the county’s tax collections.

“Then, add into that the permanent financing — which is going to be over $20 million — and the notion that we’re not supporting education is laughable,” Maynard added. “We’ve put our money out there to show that we’re supportive.”

Maynard added that the school system has lost 200 students in recent years and questioned why the cost to operate the school system had not decreased.

The drop in students has resulted in a decrease in state funding, yet the school system requested that the county not decrease its support.

Maynard said the state has obviously concluded that the school system can deal with less money, and wondered why the county shouldn't be expected to pay less, too.

“Somebody is wrong,” Maynard said. “Either the state is wrong, or [the county] is wrong.”

If the loss of 200 students didn’t result in a decrease in funding needed, Maynard asked, then at what at what point would the school system finally start seeing a change in its operating costs?

“At some point, this has got to show up in the school’s budget,” he said. “They are asking us for the same amount of money this year to educate fewer kids.”

The supervisors tentatively put $4.395 million in the budget for the school system. The school board had requested $4.6 million.