After hearing Metro school officials discuss $723 million in education needs, Mayor Karl Dean was noncommittal Friday on whether his administration would be able to fully fund the district’s massive proposed increase in the upcoming budget.
“We have things we’re going to have to look at,” Dean said when asked whether the school board’s request for a $48.9 million budget increase is a realistic figure to fund. He added that public education remains a top focus.
Leading up to his re-election last August, Dean routinely reminded voters his office has “fully funded” Metro schools each year to the level requested by the school board. But never have budgetary demands been this high. Dean is expected to unveil a proposed budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year on May 1.
For an hour and a half Friday morning, Director of Schools Jesse Register and other top school administrators went line-item by line-item, explaining why Metro’s public schools system needs a budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year that would exceed the current budget by 7.3 percent.
The school board unanimously approved Register’s budget proposal on Tuesday, but Dean and the Metro Council hold the purse to make the funding a reality. Register and his crew of top officials arrived at Dean’s office Friday for the final round of the mayor’s budget hearings.
Dean told reporters Metro is “operating in tough fiscal times,” but added that Register “gave a very good presentation.”
Register’s budget includes dollars to increase the starting salary for Metro teachers to $40,000 to put Nashville in better position to compete with surrounding counties for top-tier teachers. Metro currently ranks 27th in the state in beginning teacher pay.
“That’s not good enough,” Register said. Dean called the new pay plan “a sound approach.”
With Metro’s enrollment already nearing 80,000, school officials are expecting an additional 1,600 to 1,700 students next year. To accommodate for growth, the budget includes an additional 100 new teaching positions.
Other expenditures are set aside for the opening of the new Cane Ridge Elementary School and a 2 percent salary increase for some support staff workers. In addition, the budget accounts for traditional budgetary requirements –– so-called “fixed costs” such as salary step increases for certain employees and rising insurance and pensions costs.
Register has also planned a so-called “Bridge School,” to help students’ transition from middle to high school, which requires additional funding. The budget also accounts for Dean’s “Music Makes Us” program, conceived as an overhaul of the district’s music education program.
Metro Nashville Public Schools is not the only Metro entity in need of additional funding. Over the past five years, the number of Metro workers has decreased by 670. That sort of operational stress has led many to speculate about a potential property tax increase, which would be Metro’s first since 2005.
Dean said he hasn’t made a decision on a tax hike.
“The process is, we present the budget in May, and that’s the way we’ll do it,” he said.