Bedford County Financial Management Committee accepted a revised school system budget proposal Tuesday night and scheduled a special called meeting of Bedford County Board of Commissioners next week to approve it.
But the meeting was not without some back-and-forth between county commissioners and school system officials over whether recent budget cuts were justified.
The new fiscal year began July 1; the county has been operating at last year's spending levels under a continuing resolution until a new budget can be approved. Individual budgets have been approved for all funds except the school system.
Bedford County Board of Education originally drafted a budget based on the property tax rate the school has been receiving for several years - $1.02 per $100 assessed value.
School system officials said at the time they passed that original budget that it was a tight one, which relied on using up money from the fund balance and that left very little room for error. But at the last minute, county commissioners cut the school system's tax rate by six cents, shifting that money into the county's debt service budget.
The result has been a rift in the previously-peaceful relationship between the commission and the school system, a rift that was in evidence Tuesday night.
County commissioner J.D. "Bo" Wilson last night accused the school system of having "assistants of assistants" and complained about a $3,000 allocation for business cards in the 2011-2012 fiscal year, claiming that even janitors were given business cards.
Wilson also mentioned a controversial China trip, for which the school system has used grant funds to reimburse some participants for their tickets.
"These are small things that add up to big things," said Wilson.
"What assistants are you referring to?" asked school board member Amy Martin.
Board members said that for personnel dealing with the public, business cards are a legitimate business expense.
School board chairman Barry Cooper said the central office has fewer people than it had a year ago.
Cooper distributed figures showing that the county currently allocates less money per pupil than it did three, four or five years ago.
Meanwhile, costs such as electricity, water, sewer and diesel have been rising rapidly during that same five-year period. Electricity, natural gas and maintenance personnel were three of the areas cut by the school board to adjust to the new tax rate.
The board also used some non-recurring federal money to pay teachers in the adjusted budget.
"We can't operate on five-year-ago money," said Cooper.
Cooper said that if the student population this fall turns out to have grown as much as it did last year, the county will need to hire eight or nine more teachers -- teachers it doesn't have money set aside for under the budget cuts.
Last year, the school system was able to absorb student population growth without hiring new teachers, said school officials, but won't be able to do that a second year in a row.
Wilson, referring to the staffing issues, said that the county should post the salaries of all county employees, including school employees, on its web site. Cooper responded that the county needed to improve its salaries for teachers before publicizing them, lest it have an even harder time of competing with surrounding school systems for personnel.
Commissioners had asked Doug Bodary of the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) to discuss the question of whether or not the original, $1.02-tax-rate budget would have resulted in an automatic tax increase the following year.
Commissioner Joe Tillett at first said that question would have been relevant if the school system had failed to turn in a reduced, 96-cent-tax-rate budget. Since the school system has turned in a reduced budget, Tillett moved to dispense with Bodary's presentation. That prompted Cooper to ask why giving the school system the same tax rate would have been a tax increase.
"Barry can't keep his mouth shut," said Tillett, saying that the county commission had been giving the school system "everything it wanted" for 10 years and that he was angry at being criticized by Cooper for this year's cuts.
Tillett also referred to "new people who have not matured in their jobs." He did not name names, although School Superintendent Ray Butrum, another member of the Financial Management Committee, has just completed his first year in office.
Bodary, caught in the middle, was peppered with questions and basically said he'd need to study the county's specific figures more carefully.
"I can't just sit here and say there's going to be a tax increase," said Bodary. He did note the pressure that both school systems and county governments are under as stimulus funds run out.
After the arguments died down, the finance committee voted to accept the reduced budget as submitted by the school board, passing it along to the full county commission for approval.
Butrum said that because the budget shifts some personnel positions, it needs to be approved and in place by the time school starts next week. County Mayor Eugene Ray said five days' public notice is required for a special called meeting, and so the commission will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 31, to tackle the single agenda item of approving the complete county budget.