The County School Board decided on Thursday night to take a balanced budget to the County Commission, but also tell commissioners they have a $24.5 million "needs list."
Board member Joe Smith, who recommended the balanced budget approach, said he believes a tax increase for the schools is necessary, but he has not heard from any commissioners who do.
The board will give the staff a week to come up with the balanced budget and hold a special called meeting next Thursday to approve it.
Board member David Testerman said for years school board members have been considered "the bad guys" for cutting proposed budgets, while commissioners have been "heroes" for holding the line on taxes.
He said the focus ought to be on the commission members "who won't give us the money we need."
It has been 12 years since there was a tax increase for schools, board members noted.
Also at the meeting will be consideration of a new charter school for boys in Highland Park. It will be launched with a sixth grade.
The board members also had a spirited discussion of the topic of school vouchers, with Rhonda Thurman said not allowing them would deprive many children from attending a better school.
Karitsa Mosley Jones said use of vouchers "would kill some of our schools."
The board voted to keep school fees for now since it is pegged into the budget, but pledged to revisit the issue soon.
This is the full text of the statement read by Joe Smith:
Thank you Mr. Chairman. Friends, thank you all for your service. I am proud to be on the Board.
Let me be real clear. In my short time here, I am convinced the school system needs more revenue. I cannot say I fully understand all the items that are not included in a balanced budget, but I know that more revenue would make a difference.
I think we all agree the school system could put new dollars towards any number of worthy items. It seems to me that’s about all we’ve talked about for some time. I also think we can agree that Mayor Coppinger and the County Commissioners understand these items better as a group than any time in recent history. These are good things.
Now, if I follow it correctly, we have given the County a capital projects list of $172 million and what most call the “wish list” for school operations. Another $33.5 million. That number is now at $24.5 million due to more growth money. I think it is very fair to say that anyone paying attention knows what this Board’s position is on the amount of revenue we receive.
Last Thursday, we listened to Dr. Kelly present the $396.5 million budget. I thought the presentation of how we would weave the new money into our strategic plan was impressive.
Before we address this resolution, let me say this. I am among those here tonight who have said, in one way or another, that the County Commission just needs to go ahead and commit to a property tax increase. I’m not sure most taxpayers think that is right thing to do, or at least they are not fully convinced.
It’s not our job to tell Mayor Coppinger and the County Commission anything, except to try even harder to keep each Commissioner more informed of school issues. It’s our job to manage a school system with the money provided while always being stingy with how tax dollars are spent, accountable for results and advocating for additional money that the best minds say is to improve the performance of our students.
So tonight we are here to approve our budget. And here, my friends, is where I have a problem. There is no magic date that we have to do this. The County will hold its first meeting on the budget on May 9. Mayor Coppinger’s finance team already knows all the numbers and any variation we might give them. So tonight, what we are here for is to approve a budget and send a message or two.
The first thing I want folks to know is that we know how to balance and approve a budget, just like they do in their households or their businesses. A budget that is $24.5 million out of balance doesn’t say that to anyone.
I want the Mayor Coppinger and the County Commission to know that we respect how tough it is to raise taxes. We do that by sending them essentially a balanced budget, approved by the Board, which the Mayor and Commissioners can use as they begin a month-long process that ends with a final budget approval.
I want the community to know that we as a Board are not going to just do the same thing that has been done for 12 straight years with no success. I want them to know we are open to new ideas, just as we always tell our teachers to be.
I want the community, the Mayor and the Commission to see an impressive presentation of how we would spend new revenue right alongside the balanced budget. Both are equally important.
But we have to be realistic. We can argue that increases should have occurred at some point over the past 12 years, but that serves no purpose. It is unrealistic to expect to solve 12 years of decisions in one year. I do not want the Board to foster false expectations to employees, teachers, elected officials, students, parents or taxpayers.
No Commissioner has told me they intend to vote for a property tax increase, but all have said they understand the need. I think all the Commissioners know we have to do something about facilities, but that also takes a tax increase. So even in the best of scenarios, it is just almost impossible for me to see how the Commission could possibly fund a fair amount of capital improvements and $24.5 million in new operating revenue.
So, it just makes sense that we take the $24.5 million and prioritize it in a way that the County can see just what $10 million, or $15 million, or $20 million will get them.
So with that in mind, Mr. Chairman, I move to table this resolution. If that motion prevails, I will move a second motion to express the desire of the Board as to this budget. So, I move to table the motion.