BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
School buses became a point of contention between members of the Greene County Education Committee on Thursday when County Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk raised her concern that the county could end up in a bind without purchasing all nine of this year's requested buses.
Kirk and Transportation Director Clark Justis first brought the matter to the Budget & Finance Committee in April, requesting a total of nine buses, including the replacement of three mini-buses.
State law limits how long buses may remain on the road based on age and mileage. The school system has the large and normal-sized buses on a schedule to rotate off at six buses a year. The mini-buses were not included on this schedule, however.
Kirk and Justis also cautioned the committee that the approximately 15-year cycle for larger buses would spike in 2016 due to the County Commission's purchase of 11 buses in 2001.
Because of this, they requested the nine-bus purchase this year to aid in avoiding an even larger purchase in upcoming years, putting their total request at $697,000 from the Education Debt Service Fund.
The County Commission votes on the purchase of buses each year, taking a short-term note out that typically averages around $500,000.
The Budget & Finance Committee voted to recommend the $697,000 purchase to the County Commission.
However, in a called meeting of the committee held later in April, the committee reviewed county Budget Director Mary Shelton's 2013-2014 projections for the Education Debt Service Fund.
Shelton reported that revenues in the fund have not come in as originally projected and said the fund will likely fall just below the $1 million fund balance that the County Commission and Board of Education like to keep as a minimum balance.
The school system pays up to $250,000 each year to help maintain this minimum balance in reserve funds.
Adding the increased bus purchase request, Shelton said, would leave the fund with a more significant shortfall at the end of 2013-2014.
The Greene County Commission voted on this matter the week after Shelton presented these numbers to the committee.
Kirk was not present at the second committee meeting, having already received the committee's approval at the first meeting.
She said during Thursday's Education Committee meeting that she found out about the concern and possible deficit by reading about it in The Greeneville Sun, and spent her weekend trying to gather information in preparation for the County Commission meeting.
At the County Commission meeting, it was noted that the purchase of three mini-buses and two full-sized buses would come closer to the yearly average of $500,000 of county expense for bus purchases, creating less of a deficit in the coming year.
County Commissioner Nathan Holt questioned how many buses would actually be necessary in order for the system to maintain their routes and the mandated minimum of spares.
Kirk agreed that the system would be able to operate on this number, but also cautioned that it would mean even larger purchases next year and in the coming years as bus prices continue to increase.
Holt made the motion to amend the resolution to only purchase five of the nine requested buses; the motion later passed on a split vote.
"We wanted to revisit buses," Kirk told the Education Committee on Thursday.
"I am afraid we did not do a very good job of informing the commission of where we are at the time they took the vote."
Kirk, Justis, and Bryan Bowman, of the system's Transportation Department, spent considerable time emphasizing that all buses are fully utilized, with 80 on the routes every day and every spare often in use, especially in the spring for sports.
"I feel like we need to go ahead and buy the buses," Kirk concluded, presenting a spread sheet in which she had taken information provided by Shelton and formed a 10-year forecast for the Education Debt Service Fund.
With the full $697,000 purchase, Kirk estimated this year's deficit at $208,600.
By 2017-2018, she projected the fund to no longer operate at a deficit, even with revenues remaining flat for all 10 years.
This prompted considerable conversation and tense debate between members of the committee.
"You're just digging yourself a deeper hole," said County Commissioner Jan Kiker in support of not delaying the bus purchase.
Kiker is a teacher at North Greene High School.
"Our Education Debt is out of the question this year. It's not going to happen -- not out of Education Debt Service," Holt said.
"I've looked at this. I understand it well. It's just not in Education Debt this year."
He explained that the fund is already at a deficit and defended purchasing buses as they are actually needed, planning ahead for the appropriate revenue.
"Maybe it can be worked out to where you can contribute more than the $250,000," he suggested.
"I don't think so!" Kirk and school system Budget Director Mary Lou Woolsey said in tandem.
County Commissioner Hilton Seay responded with an even bigger request.
"The Budget & Finance Committee met Wednesday. Hold on to your seat. They wanted me to ask, would the school system consider paying for the buses this year and pay back -- now don't laugh, Ms. Woolsey," he said.
He noted that the system is expected to receive additional funds from the state for 2013-2014.
"We're getting [Basic Education Program] BEP money, and we're going to get some money that's devoted for technology only," Kirk replied.
As for any additional BEP funds, Kirk said Gov. Bill Haslam intended it for capital improvements and raises.
Woolsey said that all but $25,000 of the BEP's estimated $900,000 increase will be consumed by an estimated 8.5 percent increase in insurance costs and 1 percent bonuses.
"Now that's creating a problem," Seay said when Kirk noted her intention to provide bonuses.
Kirk explained, however, that the governor's budget intended for schools to provide a 1.5 percent salary increase. However, there are some indications that the state will be freezing salary schedules and requiring a new, "merit pay" salary schedule.
This would base teacher salaries on performance and program participation, rather than only on years served or degrees obtained, she has said.
Because of the need to provide new salary schedules, Kirk said she does not intend to give any raises this year and will use the money the governor intended for 1.5 percent raises for certified employees as a 1 percent bonus to everyone.
"I don't want to change [the salary schedule] until I know what they're doing," she said. "I want to make sure that I am prudent with the way we spend what they're sending us this year."
Nathan Holt questioned where the school system put the funding received from the property tax increase that was above and beyond the amount they requested. The system had requested a 13-cent increase and received a 15-cent increase.
Kirk replied that those funds went into the operating budget for capital projects, library books and instructional materials.
"And it was badly needed," she said.
"Nobody questions that, but right now ... [the county] is in -- by far -- worse shape than we've ever been," Seay said, referring to his time on the Budget & Finance Committee.
"I'd say that's true," Kirk replied.
"I don't understand, Hilton, why you think [the needed funds] should come from the schools and the Highway Department. They didn't create that mess," Kiker said.
"What did create it?" he asked.
Kiker and Seay then debated the role and responsibility of the Budget & Finance Committee versus every member of the commission for depleting county savings in several funds.
"Last year, in the appropriations, the school system got two cents more than they asked for, and the roads got money when they hadn't asked for any," he said. "The county's in a bind this year."
"Where we made a mistake last year, that extra two cents should not have been given to the school system. That money that went to the highway [department] should not have gone. That should have gone into the [General Debt Service Fund.]
"Why should these two departments not be asked to help the county out this year?" he concluded.
"That's money that they're using in their operational budget," Kiker responded.
'DUCKS IN ORDER'
"What makes this worse is, at our meeting, I asked, 'How many buses are needed?' and that's what we voted on," Holt said. "And now we get this [additional information]."
"You know what makes this worse?" Kirk replied. "I could have had all this to you, but I read about this problem Friday night, eating my supper, in The Greeneville Sun.
"I had to appear before the commission at 9 'o clock on Monday morning.
"That's what makes it worse. I could have been prepared."
"I wanted to vote on what you needed," Holt said. "This needed to come before. If [the vote] needed to be delayed, that was fine. You need to get your ducks in order before you come asking for money."
"There simply was not time to do so," Kirk said.
"I was a little flabbergasted, Nathan," the director recalled. "I worked all weekend long trying to make sure I was ready. I didn't know what was going to happen."
County Commissioner David Crum agreed that the commission should have had the information Kirk presented on Thursday prior to the vote at the commission meeting.
"I don't like re-voting," he said.
"I don't like to revote things either," Kirk said. "I despise it. But I would hate to hold to that principle and cause a problem later on.
"I would rather admit a mistake and fix it. And that's the way I am on this."
The committee ended the discussion with a vote to send the matter back to the Budget & Finance Committee for further analysis.
In other business, the committee approved for recommendation to the Budget & Finance Committee year-end budget adjustments, and briefly reviewed progress on the system's capital projects.