Sullivan County mayor takes BOE to task over actions in budget impasse

J. H. Osborne • Sep 28, 2019 at 12:10 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — If what Sullivan County Schools officials are saying about the system’s drop in students this year is true, it’s cataclysmic compared to anything that’s happened for nearly three decades. Sullivan County Board of Education President Michael Hughes said on Thursday that the system is on track to lose 2%, and later told the board a 3% loss is not out of the question. Hughes backed that up by saying that since the school year started, average daily attendance is down 2.9% to 3.4%. School officials said there’s been a loss of about 270 students. The system’s total enrollment is about 9,000.

According to historical data, the largest drop the county system has experienced since the 1990-1991 school year was 1.3514% during the 2011-2012 school year. Last year the drop in average daily attendance was 1%. In many of the years since the 1990-1991 school year, the decrease has been well under 1%. The average over the last five years is less than ninth-tenths of 1%. School officials have offered no reason or explanation for why the decrease in students would be making such a dramatic downturn with this school year.

Non-school county officials say its simple: “It benefits the school department to underestimate, as they have been doing in past years. Any excess funds simply roll into the school’s reserves.”

The BOE approved a school system budget based on an expected 2% drop in enrollment — and what would be expected, therefore, to be a 2% drop in local tax revenue for the system (school funding is based on the number of students). But instead of projecting a 2% drop in the system’s actual local tax revenue from the year that ended June 30, the BOE decided to deduct 2% from what they originally budgeted as projected revenue last year. The problem with that, county financial records show, is that the system’s actual revenue exceeded its projected revenue by $1.6 million. Where did that extra $1.6 million go? Into the school system’s surplus, county budget officials said Friday. And it’s a trend that’s been going on for several years.

As for not having money to operate the school system should the state, in fact, withhold Basic Education Plan funding in the weeks ahead, the Sullivan County school system has in excess of $17 million in surplus funds.

Thursday evening, the BOE sent an email to school system employees saying the school system might be “shut down” due to maintenance of effort concerns from state officials. The BOE has scheduled a called meeting to talk about it next week.

On Friday, Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable issued a public statement taking the BOE to task for sending out the “traumatic” email and accused the BOE of “playing political games with Sullivan County taxpayers and even their own employees” and described the BOE’s decision to estimate a 2% drop in average daily attendance as “an arbitrary budget projection.”

Venable said the Sullivan County Commission has acted responsibly and constitutionally in “fully funding the school budget at $86 million” based on revenue projections developed using historical data — the average daily attendance decreases listed above. Venable said the County Commission will also have a called meeting to discuss the issue next week.

Venable said county accounting staff had discussed the issue with school officials “to no avail. The school department has not been willing to consider any adjustment, nor have they provided any additional information to support why they estimated the 2% drop in average daily attendance.”

Venable said a conference call on Thursday was the first direct information the county has received on the issue from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office.

“Seeking a blank check from the taxpayers of Sullivan County, the Board of Education picked its own lower (Basic Education Plan) projection to insert in its current budget and then cried to the state that the (County Commission) had not fully funded their budget request,” Venable said. “The bottom line for the parents and students and employees (of the school system) is this: the school department has all the funding and reserves it needs to fulfill its mandate to educate our young people.”