• 75°

A lot to ponder for the county school system… What does the future hold for county schools?

BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR STAFF
ivan.sanders@elizabethton.com
About a year and a half into a five-year plan, the Carter County School Board was seeking an outside eye into the current state of the school system and what could be done in regards to cost savings for the system.

Outside consultant Keith Brewer was tasked with conducting interviews and visiting schools to assess and provide an analysis of his findings to the school board for consideration.

On Thursday evening during a school board workshop, Brewer presented information on his findings and responded to questions from the board.

Brewer who spent a week visiting the schools and speaking with various individuals advised the board that they are only one of roughly 16-20 counties in the state that still operates under the 1981 Budget Act.

“There has been an enrollment decline over the last two to three years,” Brewer said. “The school system has dropped from 5,000 to 6,000 down to a little over 4,700-plus students.

“Funding is less for students and right now in you are in a stability year but next year that 4,700 will kick in. You conservatively have 77 teachers outside BEP funding which means the county is paying for all those teachers and you are really paying more than that.”

Brewer informed the board that when there are smaller schools is usually, those numbers usually show up outside the BEP. He further advised that it’s difficult to take savings and convert those into teacher salaries.

Furthermore, when giving raises, the school system is covering all that outside BEP.

Brewer drew the following conclusions from his study that were presented to the BOE.

“You were looking for immediate savings and I found over $2, 323,644 in the first three years,” Brewer shared. “Eliminating small schools is the beginning.

“You are going to have to build onto other schools that are existing to receive the students. When you blend or restructure a school you wait a year and hold meetings.

“You need to start working and blending the cultures of these schools immediately,” Brewer continued. “There will be a lot of meetings as you try to get the same culture that you get now at the other schools.”

Two schools specifically mentioned by Brewer were Little Milligan with 118 students and Keenburg with close to 300 students.

Brewer also advised that once those schools were closed the board would have empty buildings and suggested possibly letting them go back to the county or in the case of Little Milligan keeping the Pre-K and making a community center out of the school building.

When questioned about selling the buildings, Brewer said in his experience a lot of times that wasn’t the way to go, and the school system could still find itself having to pay insurance while having to possibly deal with vandalism of the buildings.

He stated that the only other cost the county schools would have in closing the schools would be for buses to bring students to the receiving schools.

In considering the loss of teachers, Brewer said that even if the county lost six or seven teachers, then the county would still be saving money by not replacing those teachers.

However, he did warn the BOE that losing Level 4 and Level 5 teachers was a no-no and if necessary they would need to look at improving salaries to keep those teachers.

Brewer also addressed the Siam Academy stating that the setup was a unique situation and felt that in his opinion was a wash because if it was closed and moved to another school, it would still take the same amount of money to take care of the students to help ensure they can graduate.

The consultant made a statement to the board concerning identity saying, “A community’s identity is either a school or a church. Little Milligan is still going to have a church and community center.

“With the Principal and teachers there – you are spending an enormous amount of money there.”

Getting down to where the rubber meets the road, Brewer bluntly sounded an alarm with the board where he sees a financial impact for the school system occurring.

“You are going to spend a lot of money on schools and the county commission or finance group is going to start having money taken away from you,” Brewer said. “I believe you have like $8 million-plus in fund balance unassigned.

“Because you have lost students, legally they can take that away from you because three percent is all you have to maintain in that fund. At least by doing this study it keeps a good relationship with the commission and the finance group because you are showing that you are doing something.

“If you hadn’t done the study, you wouldn’t have anything to look at,” continued Brewer. “I hope that I have given you what you can save money at no matter if you don’t do anything.”

Brewer suggested that at the next board meeting that the board members accept the report but don’t react to the report. He then added that at the following workshop, the board might want to discuss implementing and when to do so or at least add it to their five-year plan.

He then closed by saying, “It’s going to be a tough decision. I think that if you get the stakeholders and make them understand what you are doing, they will support you.

“Every situation is different. You have this budget out and I am fearful if you don’t do something they are going to take money from you.”

Board Chairman Tony Garland stated to the board that they are one and a half years into their five-year plan stating, “We are not getting there (objectives in the plan) with the current funding. How do we get there if we are doing the same thing?”

School Director Dr. Tracy McAbee updated the board on the current COVID-19 advising that the health department stated that the charts are off due to cases being placed in correct zip codes so there currently are no stop signs as the trend continues to look good.

Dr. McAbee also asked that board members talk with their communities about taking Friday’s which are currently virtual days and beginning in March go to a five-day schedule as it was important to get children in the classroom as much as they possibly could.

The director also wanted to clarify the statement that BEP was going to provide a two-percent raise.

“That’s misleading,” stated Dr. McAbee. “They are providing funding for 200 teachers but we have 277 which makes that a lot less. They gave us a pot with a little over $200,000 so that is going to be a smaller piece of the pie.”

Dr. McAbee shared that he would have more information on the ESSER 2.0 funds at the next board meeting. Board member Danny Ward asked Dr. McAbee if they could use a portion of the ESSER funds to give a one-time stipend to janitors and support staff since they could not provide raises and Dr. McAbee said he thought that the funds would allow that.

The next regularly scheduled Carter County School Board meeting will be held on Thursday, February 18th at 5:30 pm.