PHOTO: Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney and CFO Leslie Holman took questions at last week’s joint session of the Board of Commissioners education and budget committees, just as they did Monday during the education committee meeting. / Photo by John McBryde
By JOHN McBRYDE
Williamson County Commissioner Dwight “Bubba” Jones seemed to embrace the silence of the auditorium of the county’s Administrative Complex Monday as he examined his copy of the 2019-20 Williamson County Schools budget.
Having missed last week’s joint session of the education and budget committees, where members asked detailed questions of WCS Superintendent Mike Looney, CFO Leslie Holman and Deputy Superintendent Jason Golden, Jones, 1st District, did the bulk of the asking at the most recent meeting.
After a long pause as he studiously reviewed the numbers, Jones sighed and finally asked, “Is this the best budget you’ve got?”
That’s how the evening went as Jones and six other members of the education committee spent about an hour going over the district’s request for $386,248,331 for the general purpose budget and $13,254,951 for the capital budget.
It was Looney’s first public meeting in Williamson County since it was announced last week that he is the lone finalist for the job of superintendent of schools for Fulton County Schools in Atlanta. He wasn’t available for comment, and in fact left the education committee meeting before it ended to apparently attend another. The district and school board will know Looney’s decision by May 2, according to Golden.
Looney was able to answer Jones’ rather abrupt question about the budget.
“There are three main reasons for the budget increase,” he said. “We’re going to grow by more than a thousand students. We have to buy $7 million worth of textbooks this year that we haven’t bought for the past two years because we did open educational resources. We don’t have the luxury to do that [this year].
“And the third reason for the budget increase is because we elected to give pay raises. Part of that raise was directed by [the county commission], and the second part of that was, in order for us to hire qualified teachers, we’re being beaten by the margins. People are choosing to go elsewhere. We’re not trying to get above average pay. Could we have a better budget? Yes, but we wouldn’t be able to hire teachers.
“I will say there’s a positive here. Revenue is going to continue to increase between now and June 30, so we believe the funding gap that currently exists will get down to about $11 million, which is substantially an improvement from where we started at about $18 million.”
There were more questions from Jones and other members of the committee, and a voice vote on whether to recommend the budget be ultimately approved later passed by a 6-1 count. Jones was the lone nay vote.
Before the vote was taken, Commissioner Robbie Beal, 10th District and chair of the education committee, explained the duty of each member.
“I do want to point out that this committee has two responsibilities,” he said. “Primarily, to make sure the schools are being budget-conscience, but number two, to make sure the requests are needed for the schools. I’m not trying to push this off to the budget committee to make the hard choices, but ultimately, the budget determines whether we can afford such things and whether tax increases may have to be necessary.
“While I agree with Commissioner Jones 100% that we have to be budget-conscience here, when we recommend this budget, we’re not saying this or nothing, we’re recommending that we think the schools’ requests are reasonable and they’re not overreaching.”
Later, after discussing the district’s request for over $13 million in capital funding, Jones motioned for an amendment to cap the request at $10 million. His amendment passed 5-2.
Golden said schools would suffer if the capital request did get cut in this year’s budget.
“We’ve presented a capital budget we think is a minimum that we need to maintain what we have, so we’re going to take it to the budget committee next and see how they look at it,” he said. “We’ve faced this from time to time with the county commission, and inevitably the need is going to come back, whether it comes back this year and we get to fund it in this year’s budget or if we kick the can down the road and delay it to next year.”
The budget committee will review the school budget again at its next meeting, Thursday at 3:30 p.m. in the Administrative Complex auditorium. The final vote on the budget will happen in July.