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Sullivan County Schools see smaller than predicted drop in enrollment

J. H. Osborne • Apr 6, 2020 at 3:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Board of Education significantly overestimated its projected drop in student enrollment, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

Why does that matter? It means the Sullivan County Commission’s complaints last fall about the school system’s budgeting methods appear now to have been valid — and the county won’t have to fund $800,000 that was left in the school system’s budget as contingency funds.

On March 2, Maryanne Durski, senior director of local finance for the Tennessee Department of Education, sent a letter to superintendents/directors of local school systems, county trustees, and financial agents. Attached to the letter was the weighted full-time equivalent average daily attendance for the current school year. Those figures are important because they determine how local revenues (property and sales taxes, for example) are split among local school systems.

“These figures are to be used for the apportionment of local county school funds as required (by state law),” the letter states.

What did the figures show?

Sullivan County’s school system lost nearly .36% of its WFTE-ADA compared to last year. That’s not close to the 2% decrease school system officials used to develop their budget for this year.

Sullivan County Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey, county government’s top finance officer, said the numbers are wonderful news for the county and especially good for the school system.

“They are to be commended for holding on to that number of students,” Bailey said. “It is good that they retained students they thought they would lose.”

Asked by the Times News about the $800,000 the school system and county commission had squabbled over last fall, Bailey said these numbers mean that money won’t go to the school system.

Background

It took a called meeting of the Sullivan County Commission last fall, with state officials participating via the Internet, to reach a potential solution to the disagreement over the issue with the Board of Education. The BOE later approved the compromise.

If the two sides hadn’t come to an agreement, the state could have withheld millions in funding from the school system.

State officials had threatened to withhold funding because the county school system’s budget, as calculated by school officials, did not meet maintenance of effort requirements. But county officials have argued the school system’s budget numbers were based on underestimated local tax revenue and a much higher drop in attendance than historical data showed.

The school system based its budget on a projected 2% decline in (weighted full-time) average daily attendance compared to last year. The system hasn’t lost that many students in a single year for decades. But school officials last fall said that to date this school year the loss had exceeded that level.

The school system also developed its budget by using its last year’s projected local tax revenue as a starting point for cutting out the 2% — rather than its actual local tax revenue, which county officials say came in $1.6 million higher than budgeted.

The county had approved a budget that cut $800,000 from what had for a couple of years been a $1.1 million annual appropriation to the schools, intended to reimburse the system for non-school use of school facilities by community groups. That figure had been $300,000 in prior years. The $800,000 is close to the amount of local tax revenue equal to 1% of average daily attendance. The county had attempted to persuade the school system to cut its 2% projected drop to 1%.

The compromise

The compromise, sponsored by Mark Vance and Dwight King, with primary co-sponsors Angie Stanley and Hunter Locke, put $800,000 back into the school system’s budget — but only as a contingency to be used if two things came true: the school system saw an actual drop in average daily attendance of more than 1% and the school system’s local tax revenues really came in as low as the school system projected.

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