For the Oak Ridge schools’ 2012 budget, the Board of Education is requesting a 7.32 percent increase in funds from the city, $1,059,171 more than last year.
However, it is critical that we maintain, not increase, funding, given the serious state of our economy, our extremely high tax rate, and the overwhelming level of debt we have amassed (most of which, some $90+ million dollars, has been incurred on behalf of the schools.)
Upon careful review of the school budget, I have identified adjustments that can be made with minimal to no impact on student learning. They would also allow for the retention of the proposed salary raises, step increases, and bonuses as well as some of the technology upgrades. These reductions total $1,064,970 and are as follows:
• Eliminate the assistant superintendent position and his secretary. Estimated annual savings: $185,000. Surely the functions of these roles can be absorbed between the superintendent (whose secretary shares an office with the assistant superintendent’s secretary), 15 directors/supervisors, 18 principals, three curriculum coordinators, and 18 counselors/psychologists. Note: State statistics label 23 of these employees as “administrators.”
• Reduce Line 76100 707 by $301,000. Contrary to what has been published, the schools spend between $2 million and $3 million every year for technology (equipment, software, infrastructure, communications, technical personnel, etc.). This year, the total comes to over $3.7 million. That number includes the following increases: +$750,000 for computers for teachers and middle school lab computers (page 34); +$375,000 for “technology initiatives (page 68);” +$301,000 for the construction of a “Technology Head End Room” using capital improvement funds (page 73). These increases for technology total $1,426,000. My proposed reduction eliminates the capital improvement expenditure, but maintains the new computers and the unspecified “technology initiatives” increase.
I question the merit of using capital improvement funds for any construction project not related to a preschool solution given how heavily the Board of Education has petitioned for a new facility. I also question the computer lease expenditure. New computers are likely needed, but if this acquisition is similar to those in the past, it will involve a lease, rather than a purchase, of a minimal number of over-priced computers. The audits reflect that the last major expenditure for computers was for the lease of 210 lab workstations in August 2008. The price tag came out to over $2,300 per system with interest ($753,000 total). Before that, 500 computers were leased in July 2007 at more than $1,506 each ($498,000 total). Those prices are high when considering that anyone, especially if purchasing in bulk, can buy a decent desktop with the components and functionality that most users would need for about $1,000. (Note: The schools pay separately for software, connectivity, etc., through multiple contracts.) New computers are a necessity, but overpaying is simply wasteful.
• Reduce non-critical, support positions through attrition by $280,000. This year’s budget includes 41.5 custodians, 15 maintenance workers, seven technicians, and 52 office staff. This reduction equals 6.9 percent or eight positions. $35,000 is the average, total compensation amount used to arrive at this total. Every year, anywhere from 30 to 40 employees resign, retire, or are non-renewed. If we are to continue to invest so heavily in technology, it only stands to reason that we would reduce our dependence on human resources, especially office staff.
• Reduce Line 71100 449 by $104,459. Though this year’s budget increases textbook spending by 8 percent, this amount reflects a 25 percent reduction. Last year, Mr. (Ken) Green said, “New textbooks are not required by the state and districts all over opt not to buy new textbooks. There are alternatives such as buying in-class-only sets.” If we are to continue to invest so heavily in technology, it only stands to reason that we would reduce our dependence on printed texts.
• Reduce Line 71100 711 by $31,000. This cut reduces the line item for furniture by 50 percent. As I understand, we have underused classes which suggest potential unused furniture. Furthermore, furniture is not a recurring expense, per se, and could be purchased using the various funds available for one-time purchases if necessary. In fact, in 2005 and 2006, zero dollars were spent on this line item.
• Reduce multiple lines ending in 355 by $50,000. More than $100,000 is appropriated for travel every year; yet, alternative means allowed for by technology such as Webinars and teleconferences, are not utilized at all according to the administration. If we are to continue to invest so heavily in technology, it only stands to reason that we would reduce our need for travel.
• Reduce Line 72810 121 by $10,000. This amount reflects an additional “stipend” for a single employee. Last year, another Oak Ridge schools’ employee was given a $10,000 raise when reclassified from a paraprofessional to a secretary. In this economy, providing any government employee a raise is suspect, but providing them with a raise like this is indefensible.
• Reduce Line 72210 499 by $103,511. This line item increased funds for paper, copy machine maintenance, and projector light bulbs by 74 percent. The proposed reduction would maintain the same level of spending as last year. Again, if we are to continue to invest so heavily in technology, it only stands to reason that we would reduce our reliance on paper, copy machines and overhead projectors.
Let’s be clear, it is the Board of Education and the administration who choose to cut teachers, aides and programs instead of fat. Every year, they use students and teachers as scapegoats, and they twist facts in an attempt to garner public support. Rather than develop a strategic financial plan, the Board of Education and administration default to demanding more and more of the taxpayer. They can do better, but they refuse.
I have one child about to graduate and another who will start kindergarten in the fall, so I appreciate firsthand the quality education provided by Oak Ridge schools. But that quality has less to do with funding than the Board of Education would like us to believe. It is more directly attributable to the efforts of our teachers, parents, and students. How else can you explain, as Mr. (Keys) Fillauer has alluded to, that many surrounding communities operate effective, competitive educational systems with fewer funds?
Nine years ago, Dr. (Tom) Bailey inherited a $39 million budget. Since that time, spending has increased nearly 50 percent with this budget surpassing $57.5 million. We outspend 99.5 percent of the state, the national average, inflation (by nearly $10 million), and now the most prestigious private school in the area, Webb. Yet, Dr. Bailey calls this a “maintenance” budget.
The city is obligated by law to fund the schools at the same level as the previous year; thus, any increase they make is an eternal increase. I repeat, with our debt situation being what it is (we have issued bonds totaling over $125 million and we have the highest per person debt-to-revenue ratio in the entire state) we simply cannot afford to continue to increase spending. For the sake of our future, I encourage the Board of Education to re-think their spending habits and I ask the City Council to fund the school budget at a rate no greater than is required by law.
**Published in the May 4, 2011 edition of The Oak Ridger & the May 5, 2011 edition of The Observer**