Jul 5, 07 LTE (Observer)/Jun 28, 07 Statement to ORSB

For many years now, the Oak Ridge School Board has requested additional funding from the City Council while inferring that our schools are in jeopardy. While certain members have indicated that they do not desire “to pit one city service against another” year after year, this is exactly what has happened. When council cannot meet 100% of your demands, a public rally against them ensues without full financial disclosure from the school board.
To substantiate your requests, you claim to have made sacrificial cuts before ever approaching the city council. But when these cuts include previously nonexistent items, such as last year’s new athletic director salaried at nearly $100,000 and a custodian position salaried at nearly $37,000, those cuts do not appear to be sacrificial whatsoever. Furthermore, last year, Dr. Bailey stated to WBIR that “two full-time teachers, four teacher’s assistants….could also be cut.” But when council did not concede to your requests, these cuts did not materialize. In fact, total staffing did not decrease that year at all, it actually increased by 6.
After studying historical budget documents, I am baffled at the notion that our schools are in jeopardy. Especially, when one considers that over the last 10 years, enrollment has declined by 411 students, yet spending has increased by over $10 million. During this same period, staffing has increased as well and this year, you anticipate an increase of 9 students, yet you have budgeted for 13.5 additional staff . Given these facts, one has to wonder exactly what critical aspect of our schools has ever been in jeopardy.

In recent months, I have asked you questions in an attempt to understand the school budget and, thus contribute to public discourse. Your responses have been vague or incomplete at best, and at times, contradictory. When those contradictions are pointed out, I am given responses that indicate possible error but are justified by statements such as “Please note that my responses are my own, and that I do not speak for any other member, nor for the Board as a whole.” When one member speaks to fact, it is to be assumed that you are speaking on behalf of the entire board. That is, unless, you do not have your facts straight, in which case you are indicating a lack of knowledge or understanding of your own budget. Under these conditions, any solicitation for citizen input seems disingenuous.

On a number of occasions you have stated a need to “return to the table” once funding becomes available as if you were absolutely clueless as to how you would spend the money if it were granted. I am starting to understand that the “contingent” factor is a perpetual problem; while contingencies do preclude budgeting based on absolutes, this problem is not unique to the schools. Even the city can only speculate as to what kind of revenues will be available in the future. Responsible budgeting dictates that one must first account for the absolute necessities, then examine secondary necessities and then consider non-necessities. Of course, all is subjective, but to state that you are unable to properly prioritize because you don’t know how much money you may receive (even when you are confident enough to state what you expect publicly) is, to me, irresponsible.

As a tax-paying citizen, I believe the least a public official can do is clearly state priorities. Dr. Bailey has stated that “Our children’s safety is always a priority.” If that is the case, then how can you justify reinstating the non-existent custodian position instead of the driver’s ed program? How does allocating $115 million additional dollars for Fiscal Services make children’s safety a priority when those who need it the most are still being denied transportation?

The money you are spending is not yours – it is that of every Oak Ridge citizen. As such, you are obligated to account for how and why you are spending it.

To avoid any further misunderstandings, I respectfully request the following:

1. A line-by-line justification of each item in the FY07 & FY08 school budgets.

2. Any and all documentation that has been used as a means to prioritize the basis for the school budget. This should include the previously requested listing of all mandated allocations as well as any commentary and analysis of the proposed budget.

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