Published in print July 15, 2015
By THOMAS P. WEAVER
CELINA-The Clay County Commission’s decision not to give the school system additional funding didn’t come without drama here last week at the governing body’s budget meeting.
Much discussion was heard by those in attendance, including comments from both sides and from the public.
Director of schools Jerry Strong kicked off the dialogue by explaining the school board’s funding issue was “essentially the same,” as it has been since the debate began.
“To pay for the entire thing it was going to be 30 cents,” Strong said as he sat alongside commissioners. “That didn’t fly so the school board said let’s ask for 20 cents and make up the difference.
“The way it looks the commission is not going to accept that either, so I’m not sure where that leaves us.”
“The bottom line is that the general public has asked me if you had got the $315,000, that now has dropped to $200,000, where is that money going,” budget committee chairman Winton Young asked.
“It’s all for insurance,” Strong answered.
“All of it,” Young again questioned.
“Yes,” Strong said.
Details of the insurance to be offered to school employees as a result of the Affordable Care Act were then discussed.
Strong explained the board voted to offer a middle-of-the-road plan costing $70,000 more than the basic plan required by the federal mandate.
“The family pays part of it, right,” commissioner Dorothy Forney asked.
“Yes,” Strong said before his staff explained the school system was required to pay a defined contribution of $8,989 of the $14,000 total premium per family.
An audience member, later self-identified as West End resident and current bus driver Jerry Spencer when the floor was opened to the public, then insisted the percentage the defined contribution represented be announced.
After some back and forth and quick off-the-cuff calculations, Strong’s staff–after explaining they had been advised not to work on a percentage basis–told Spencer the defined contribution paid by the school system was “roughly 64%” of the total premium.
With the math straight, attention turned back to the debate as Strong further pleaded the school board’s case.
“No one should make the argument that the school board is not trying to comply,” Strong said touting the prior cuts the school board has made. “Nobody can say we’ve not done our part.”
“I didn’t create this problem, nor did the commission, nor did the (school) board and, if this doesn’t pass, most likely I will have to send people home and this time you’re gonna notice who I cut.
“Our mission was to cut the fluff out (of the budget) and we did that,” Strong continued. “We don’t want to do the teachers any harm.”
“We don’t mean the teachers any harm either,” Young replied.
“Well it pretty much speaks for itself,” Strong said. “Without this, we have no future at all.”
“Thats our job to come up with the money to make things work,” Young said as he prepared to put the issue to a vote. “We have final say so.”
Before he called the roll, commissioners Parrish Wright and Forney addressed their fellow constituents and those in attendance.
“Not one person I’ve talked to in the county has been for giving them more money,” Wright said before the vote. “They all said there’s places they can cut.”
Forney then added traction to Wright’s statement.
“I’ve been over it line item by line item,” Forney said of the school budget. “I’ve talked to a lot of people, even some teachers, and they all say there can be cuts made.”
Following the comments, Young clarified what commissioners would be voting on.
“We are going to take a vote on a 20-cent property tax increase earmarked for education,” he said.
Nine no votes followed and Young closed the meeting with a final comment.
“I guess this goes back to the board of eduction then,” Young said. “I know the board is struggling with this and they have worked hard, but the public has said they don’t want a tax increase of any kind.”
Other points made
prior to the decision
Other discussion occurred before the vote was taken, including more from Young and Strong, along with comments from Spencer when the floor was opened to the public.
Strong explained over 70% of the school budget is controlled by the state, and said the board actually controls less than $3 million of the of the approximately $9 million total.
“There’s only a small portion that the board actually works with,” he said.
“We understand that,” Young said. “It’s that way with any budget.”
The chairman then brought up other points relating to the discussion.
“Clay County has the #7 highest tax rate in the state,” he said. “And if this passes, we will move to the #3 highest.”
Strong agreed, but also explained it had been some time since the school budget had been increased.
“As far as we can tell, the schools have not received an increase in the last 28 years,” he said. “That shows the school board has done a good job maintaining.”
Young then used records to show the school budget has grown $2 million in the last 10 years, which Strong attributed to growth increases.
The floor was then opened for public comment and Spencer addressed the commission.
He questioned the commissioners about additional tax revenue created by a past property value reassessment paired with no reduction in the property tax rate.
“Where did that money go?” he said.
“None of it went to the schools,” Young said, and later commissioner Bryan Coons explained the additional revenue was used for a 5-cent increase to the debt service fund.
Spencer then delved into the school system’s spending habits, questioned decisions made by the director, and debated Strong on several issues, including a long parley about the cost of bus routes and “other things (Spencer has) seen” as an employee of the school system.
Wright and Forney’s comments followed Spencer’s appearance, before the vote and Young’s final remarks closed the meeting.
See a future HORIZON for more details about other departments discussed at the budget meeting.