Loudon County Director of Schools Michael Garren wants to be proactive with the upcoming budget.
In past years, the Loudon County Board of Education budget has been near the last one submitted for Loudon County Commission to consider. Garren doesn’t think that is a good idea.
“We are working to finish up the proposed budget now,” he said. “So we should have that done by the time we meet Jan. 21 with the (school board) budget committee and then we’ll present there, make any adjustments that the budget committee deems necessary, re-present at the Jan. 28 meeting and hopefully they’ll like what we have at that point enough to recommend it to the full board and then at the February workshop the full board can review the budget and then if we need to make any changes before the vote at the meeting the next week.”
Garren sees benefit in showing commissioners what the school system needs from the start.
“I want to make sure that our needs are made aware to the commission so that when they hear all the budgets, they know what we’re needing because we’re one of the biggest players in the budgeting process as far as money is concerned,” he said. “So to me it makes sense for them to hear our needs since we’re a big piece of the pie so that they know what they’re dealing with when they hear all the budgets and we’re not coming in at the very end saying, ‘We need this big piece of money.’ They know on the front end.”
Garren admits this year promises its fair share of financial challenges, but he remains optimistic.
The school system last year dealt with budget cuts that included a 10 percent reduction in instructional supplies and materials to schools, $100,000 taken from the technology budget, teaching positions slashed and several positions that were not filled, Garren said.
“And really until we get to put the budget in front of budget committee, I won’t know all of the challenges until I know exactly what they’re looking for,” Garren said. “I’m trying to run a similar budget with the cuts that had starting forward and then trying to get teachers some raises. That’s the other thing, we didn’t get to give anybody raises last year. So that’s one of my goals is to try to be able to formulate a budget to get some raises for the teachers.”
The hope is for a 4 percent salary increase, but that will be up to the budget committee and full board.
“I’m not saying 4 percent will come out of the budget committee, but historically we’ve done 2 to 3 percent a year and the state tries to get us to do a couple percent a year,” Garren said. “Last year we did zero. If we can do 4 percent this year then that would make up for last year.”
The request isn’t “pie in the sky,” he said.
“Now, I’m not the funding body,” Garren said. “I’ve got to ask and advocate for my teachers and my staff what I feel like they need. We definitely can’t go two years in a row without being able to do raises. It’ll be up to the budget committee, the board and the commission if they think 4 percent is a fair number.”
School board member Scott Newman serves on the budget committee. He can’t remember when a budget was submitted this early.
“As long as I’ve been here we’ve always been the last and — for one reason or the other,” Newman said. “We usually try to start out being, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that,’ but usually what happens is they say, ‘OK, let’s wait until our retreat’ and then it gets pushed off another couple of months and then it gets pushed off another couple of months. I’m really proud of the way he’s handling it.”
Newman believes teacher raises will be a prime target of discussion.
“Our teachers are one of our greatest assets in this county and last year when all the other county employees got 2 percent our teachers got nothing,” he said. “I blame a lot of that on the process that was going on during all of that, all the turmoil, and that so solely goes back to it’s just as much our fault as it is anybody’s — the school board’s. So I think it’s only fair to bring that back up. Even if we ask for 4 (percent) and we don’t get it, at least let’s have some kind of plan to get them back to where they’re supposed to be because the cost of living goes up and they’re still at the same salary. Think about this, we got teachers that were here 25-plus years that got nothing. The step raises were there but they got nothing.”
School board member Zack Cusick, who also serves on the budget committee, believes the board must be realistic.
“That way we’re not asking outrageous numbers that we know they won’t even get a sniff at, but if we give them more realistic numbers that we feel like we’ve crunched and they can hopefully give us that in the budget I think that’d be the best thing,” Cusick said.