Mayor Karl Dean said Thursday he will do his “best” to fully fund Metro schools to the tune of a $42 million to $45 million budget increase over the current fiscal year, a hike requested to sufficiently serve a rapidly growing school district.
“Education will remain our top priority, and we’ll do everything we can to fund it to the best possible way we can,” Dean said. “But what that exact number is, I can’t say now.”
That’s the message the mayor delivered following Thursday’s budget hearing with Director of Schools Jesse Register and the school board, which has already approved a $670.5 million budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year. Register and the board are hoping Dean can find room for the 6-percent-plus budget increase in Metro’s overall budget for the next fiscal year, to be unveiled later this spring to the Metro Council.
“My goal is to do everything I can for schools, but I’m operating in a framework of a tight budget,” Dean said.
Dean’s remarks were strikingly different from those he made at last year’s schools budget hearing when he vowed he could fully fund the district’s requested funding increase then.
This year, Metro Schools has found itself is a precarious situation because of more than $30 million in lost federal stimulus and jobs money. In addition, the district is bracing for an increase of approximately 2,000 students, which should soon raise its student body to 80,000, the largest it’s been in decades.
“Given those factors, we have really tried to be very responsible,” Register said.
The school board last week approved a budget that amounted to a $37 million increase over the current fiscal year. But Gov. Bill Halsam has now proposed a 1.6 percent salary increase for teachers, which could bump the final request between $5 million and $8 million.
Register said Haslam’s pay increase plan “surprised us.”
Losing stimulus dollars is a reality the district knew was coming, and one Metro can’t control. Combined with vanishing federal job funds, more than 200 teaching positions could be lost. This decrease factors in a 129-teacher addition in the local budget. Instructional coaches –– whom Register credits with producing gains –– are among those hardest hit.
“In this budget, we really cut a number of teaching positions in our school system,” Register said. “We’ve tightened the belt significantly.”
An added $6 million expenditure, school officials say, has arisen from the increase in the number of charter schools, with five new publicly funded, privately operated schools opening next school year in Metro. That means another 736 students will be attending charter schools.
According to Chris Henson, the school district’s finance director, students who leave traditional schools for charter schools don’t offset the staff level required at their former schools. “The per-pupil calculation follows the student to the [charter] school,” Henson has said.
The district has asked for $1.7 million to employ elementary school principals and bookkeepers year-round. Currently, they work between 10 and 11 months per year. Register has said the current elementary-principal arrangement is outdated compared to those of other school systems.