BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The so-called "fiscal cliff" that has dominated the news for months will likely continue to create concern through at least the mid-February deadline for Congress to decide what to do about the nation's debt ceiling.
The last-minute compromise measure agreed to by President Barack Obama and Congress earlier this week to avert the "fiscal cliff" dealt with tax issues that were part of the "cliff."
But that 11th-hour compromise only postponed a decision about how to deal with the massive federal spending cuts that were also part of the "cliff."
Those spending cuts are often referred to as the "sequestration" of huge amounts of federal spending, including deep reductions in defense spending.
Until those spending-reduction questions are settled, their possible impact on the Greene County School System remains unclear.
COULD BE 'A REAL PROBLEM'
During Thursday's meeting of the Greene County Education Committee, newly-appointed member Nathan Holt questioned County Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk about that potential impact.
Kirk replied that significant cuts to the U.S. Department of Education budget as part of sequestration could be "a real problem."
"I don't know exactly [what the local impact might be] because I've gotten nothing on it," Kirk acknowledged.
With about 16 to 20 percent of the county school system's $45.5 million budget paid for with federal funds, the impact could be considerable, she added.
"We do a lot with [federal funds received here]. We buy technology with it. We have employees that are employed with the federal money that we consider to be crucial."
That includes Title I and many special education employees, she explained.
"I would hope that the state would give us some kind of heads-up on how [federal budget cuts] will impact us," she added.
"We had a cutback last year after school started and had to rearrange our budgets that went out to schools.
"It's a little late in the year to rearrange a budget out to a school now! A lot of it's been spent already.
"You don't sit on that money until the end of the year. You spend it on books and things that the kids need this year."
Kirk said that she hopes to receive more information on the matter at an upcoming superintendents' conference.
Meanwhile, the Education Committee voted to recommend approval of the system's mid-year budget changes to the Greene County Commission.
The budgetary amendments have already been approved by the County Board of Education at the board's last meeting, Kirk noted.
These changes address a $75,000 increase in revenues, most of which are from the state Department Of Education. The changes also allow for some interbudgetary shifts among various line items.
Among the most significant of these changes is the estimated $30,000 cost for special health equipment that the system plans to add to each of the schools.
Kirk explained that a school within the system has a student with a medical condition that makes the placement of an automated external defibrillator (AED) advisable. (An AED is a device that can provide an electrical "shock" to reestablish a heart beat, the director explained.)
Although the school system is not required by law to place an AED device in any of the schools, the agreement to place one in one school has prompted the system's attorneys to advise placing one in each and every school, Kirk said.
Staff have recently been trained on how to properly use the device, she added.
Other amendments include a decrease to the system's reserves by $10,610 -- the amount that local tax revenues came in under projections in 2011.
This only amounts to about a 0.1 percent shortage, Kirk noted, explaining that the state's Basic Education Program (BEP) requires systems to spend the full amount projected in local revenue each year to provide for students' needs.
If that amount of revenue is not achieved, it must then be taken from the system's reserves and be spent in the following year.
In other business, the committee also reviewed estimates of the cost for numerous capital projects recently approved by the Board of Education and the County Commission. The amount approved is up to $700,000.
Estimates on the projects currently total $692,390, Kirk said.
The most expensive project, installing a new HVAC system at West Greene High School, is a rough estimate for one-fourth of the project, at $177,700.
The director explained that this first phase of the HVAC replacement will begin in the classrooms and may cost more than the one-fourth estimate due, because of masonry work.
Should this be the case, the system would then eliminate the replacement of the Central Office's HVAC system from this year's list of projects, a change which would put another $62,000 toward WGHS, she said.
In addition, the system's energy expert, Steve Tipton, explained that he has noticed considerable savings for the system in the cost of heating schools using propane and/or natural gas compared with electrical heating.
He noted that these savings have especially been seen after canceling what he described as now-unnecessary contracts with Greeneville Light & Power System.
These contracts had some schools paying a base amount that he said was considerably more than their actual usage.
Since WGHS is about to undergo a HVAC replacement, Tipton recommended the system use one of these alternative energy sources for heating; he projected savings up to $2,000 per month.
Maintenance Director David Myers stated that propane will need to be the alternative used, since the nearest natural gas line is one mile from the school.
He reported that the gas company estimated the cost of running a line to the school at roughly between $100,000 and $200,000.
Kirk noted that she had hoped to see the company run the line at no cost to the system since they would be "such a good customer," but Myers said he had twice been turned down on that request.
MAJOR PROJECTS LIST
Among other major items and estimated costs on the capital projects list were:
* one-fourth of a roof replacement at Chuckey Elementary for $80,000;
* a technology management system for $56,500;
* new doors at Chuckey-Doak High School for $48,000;
* plumbing at South Greene High School for $40,000;
* safety entrances at SGHS and WGHS for $30,000 each;
* $30,000 of system-wide painting;
* SGHS sewer plant repairs for $25,000;
* wireless installation at eight schools for $24,000;
* roof replacement at Glenwood Elementary for $20,000;
* a new roadway to access the back of Mosheim Elementary for $20,000; and,
* exterior gym doors at West Pines Elementary for $14,000.
Finally, the committee briefly reviewed five career "pathways" that are currently under development by a joint committee of the city and county school systems.
Once complete, these pathways will restructure some curriculum so that students will choose a career pathway and take courses that will benefit that selection.
Wayland Seaton, High School Supervisor for the county school system, who has overseen much of the production of these pathways, explained that they all contain college options.
But, he said, the pathways also depict how students can "get off" the path toward college and into a job out of high school, or after achieving technical training or an associate's degree.
Combined, the career pathways will encompass about 95 percent of the job market in Greene County, Seaton said.
Kirk noted that the pathways were developed based on five-year projections about local jobs that were made by the Greene County Partnership. The projections, Seaton said, will therefore need to be updated on a regular basis.
The five pathways include:
* health and science;
* business and finance, and,
* educational and professional services.