By Sally Absher

Last Wednesday the Knox County School Board held a special called meeting to vote on the FY 2017 budgets, including the $453.5M general purpose fund, $71.25M capital improvement plan, $5.7M capital fund savings expenditure plan, and $27.4M school nutrition fund. All were approved.

There was little discussion on the 100-plus pages of detailed general purpose school budget. Amber Rountree asked about the line item requesting an additional $26,691 for Supervisors/Director personnel. Bob Thomas replied “That represents a true-up of salaries for two positions in Public Affairs – two supervisory positions… that would include the 3% increase as well as a step increase.”

Thomas confirmed that the replacement for an open position was hired at a higher salary. The original salary was $91K, but KCS hired the replacement at $113K. That is a $22,000 salary difference. Rountree responded, “These small amounts of money add up.”

Gloria Deathridge defended the increase, saying, “Sometimes people leave and when you hire people you have to pay for what you need, the expertise…it may be more than we want, but what do we want for the education of our children?”

Perhaps Ms. Deathridge missed the fact that this was for a PUBLIC AFFAIRS supervisor. How much more does this school system need to spend on PR and public affairs?

Using this as a segue to his favorite topic of more funding, Doug Harris said, “I’ve gone through every single line item of this budget and I’ve asked Dr. McIntyre a few questions…so I think it’s good, Mrs. Rountree, what you did, that exercise and even that question…” But, he said, “I think the tax payers of Knox County need to know that I think that we are probably still somewhere between $700 to $1000 shy, per student, of what we need to be able to produce the best academic outcomes that we can get.”

He did not mention, however, that Memphis, Nashville, and even Chattanooga spend significantly more per pupil, with significantly lower academic outcomes than we have in Knox County.

The general purpose fund was approved unanimously.

Most of the remainder of the meeting was spent on the capital improvement plan (CIP). Veteran board members have said this is never an easy budget area, because there are many needs and limited resources. What gets included in the CIP from year to year is often more about which board member or group of constituents is most organized and advocates the loudest.

Such was the case this year with the “Inskip Option.” During the March midmonth workshop, Tracie Sanger made a tearful plea to include an expansion and improvements for Inskip, an inner-city school located in her district. Other Board members pointed out that they too had an “Inskip” – Adrian Burnett and Norwood were mentioned.

At the end of that meeting, Dr. McIntyre was asked to prepare a plan that would include Inskip so the Board could see what impact that would have on the items currently on the capital improvement plan.

When asked, McIntyre said he brought the $6.5M option without recommendation, he was simply responding to a board request. Perhaps he did not need to make a recommendation, knowing that he had the support of his Board majority, and “this Board can do whatever it wants with five votes.”

McIntyre’s memorandum states the option would “take Inskip’s capacity to 700 students by building 14 new classrooms, repurposing two classrooms, expanding the cafeteria, and adding a new administrative office area and a new media center. “

Inskip is currently under capacity. McIntyre said the expansion allows the potential to rezone students from Norwood to Inskip and Powell to Norwood.

But, ”this option would have a significant impact on other areas of the capital plan.” It would eliminate the $3M Powell High cafeteria and administrative office project, and the $400,000 contingency for foundation stabilization. Security upgrade funding would be reduced by $500K and there would be a $100K reduction to the school accessibility budget line. Physical plant upgrades and roof/HVAC funding for FY 2018 would be cut by $2.5M.

Several BOE members voiced concerns about the proposed option, “not to take away anything from Inskip,” but because they felt schools in their districts had needs as great or greater.

Maintenance and Operations manager Jim French responded to questions from Board members, admitting that the impacts of cuts to the PPU and roof/HVAC funding could be “devastating,” depending on what issues arose over the next two years.

Harris framed the decision as an equity issue, saying, “We spent $60M in the suburbs, so to be able to do something for one of our inner city schools… We don’t have enough money to do everything for every school, but at some point we can do something for some of the schools… We’re able to do something for Inksip, which is one of our inner city urban poor schools.”

Terry Hill responded to comments about inequities, saying, “We have built schools where growth has occurred, and put millions upon millions of dollars in additions and renovations at some of our inner city, center city areas.”

She added, “Our superintendent brought what he thought was a fair and equitable capital plan built on the needs that were presented. There was a very passionate plea about a school in our system that certainly needs some renovation and help, but where this has all crumbled is that the reaction feels very “knee jerk.”

Karen Carson said, “This is exactly what happened last year. Dr. McIntyre brought forth his best capital plan proposal, which included many of these fixes that we are talking about tonight… but with no notice, a new proposal was on the floor and we voted on it.  This is no different from last year. I firmly believe last years’ plan would have been much better for our whole school system.”

The board voted 5 to 4 to approve the CIP with the “Inskip Option.” Voting in favor were Deathridge, Sanger, Harris, Fugate, and Carson. Once again, “This board can do whatever it wants with five votes.”