Washington County school head expects tough budget year

JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — Washington County’s school system is looking down the barrel of a triple threat to its next fiscal year budget, Superintendent Jerry Boyd told News Channel 11 Monday.

As budget negotiations with the County Commission approach, the system faces three straight years of mandated cost increases to get its minimum starting teacher pay to $50,000 a year, as well as the end of $2 million in federal pandemic-related funding and generally rising costs.

“I’ve stated this, and it’s not my intent to set off any alarms, but … as far as forecasting this is going to be one of the most difficult budgets that I have been involved in developing,” Boyd said.

Gov. Bill Lee pronounced last year that Tennessee would get its minimum starting teacher pay to $50,000 by the 2026-27 school year.

“This current year, the entry level is $43,715 (in Washington County),” Boyd said.

At a minimum, the system’s financial staff figures that will take an additional $1.8 million in recurring funding for next year’s budget — and equal amounts the following two years. It looks like the state could cover about $1.2 million of that this coming year.

“Even if that is replicated each of the next two fiscal years after this next one, we’re still behind about $600,000, and … the ways that that gap is overcome is local increases,” Boyd said.

Or not, depending on how budget talks with the county commission go this year.

Last year, commissioners voted to divert some local option sales tax revenue that had traditionally gone to the schools back into the general fund. That generated about a $2 million hit that will continue each year.

The school system’s current year budget envisions about $9 million to be taken from its fund balance. Boyd said that’s not a workable long-term model.

“It’s not sustainable to continue to balance the budget using that much of the board’s fund balance, and plus the fund balance will begin to deplete,” Boyd said. “We’ll see that if not this fiscal year over the next two or three fiscal years.”

At this point, the school board is projecting nearly $6 million in additional spending next year. In addition to the steps toward $50,000 starting pay, that includes locked-in “step raises” for certain experience levels, inflation, and the $2 million federal money drying up. If the state comes through with about $1.25 million of that projected increase, the system still goes into budget negotiations with a $4 million-plus gap.

Boyd said he knows that presents a difficult pill for county commissioners to consider swallowing. Sales tax revenues have flattened, and without other revenue options, increasing school funding by $4.2 million would require a property tax hike of about 12 cents.

For the owner of a home with an assessed value of $300,000, that would represent a $90 tax increase.

“They represent the entire community,” Boyd said of county commissioners. “Although they have a very high priority of concern on education in Washington County, they have a lot of other concerns like public safety and just the general welfare of all the citizens in Washington County.”

Complicating matters this year is the end of so-called “ESSER” funding from the federal government. It’s been in place since just after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Boyd said while ESSER money was designed to address challenges specifically related to COVID, the in-school social workers and other supports they have brought are proving invaluable in helping students succeed and their families address challenges that can affect classroom performance.

“Almost every school request included a continuation of the school social workers,” Boyd said. They’ve seen the benefits, whether it’s the contact hours that the school social workers have with the child or also outreach to community resources and connecting families.”

The county saw a 10% increase this year of third-grade students reading on grade level, and Boyd said he attributes some of those gains to the kinds of supports ESSER funding has provided.

“Our school system supports the quality of life that we all expect and some of that even goes back to the low taxes that we pay as citizens of Washington County and in the state of Tennessee, but we want to continue to improve and grow in a very focused way,” Boyd said.

Even as what Boyd called “responsible stewards,” school leaders are likely to request funding amounts that some county commissioners and taxpayers may consider on the high side, he acknowledged. He said part of that comes from inflation, and much of it from trying to keep high-quality staff in an organization that devotes more than 80% of its revenue to personnel.

“We’re trying to ensure we maintain the same level of services and at the same time we want to improve that, so the additional cost we’re working very hard to make sure that’s as low as we possibly can manage.”

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