Note: because Thursday’s Athens school board meeting was ongoing at press time for The News Courier’s Friday edition, the full story from the meeting will appear in Sunday’s edition.
Before a packed house Thursday night, the Athens school board discussed proposed legislation that would change the disbursement of money the Tennessee Valley Authority gives city and county schools each year. Numerous teachers, concerned citizens and Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks attended the meeting in which the board discussed House Bill 483 and its companion Senate bill.
TVA pays counties where it supplies electrical power an annual allotment instead of paying taxes like businesses and industries. That early payment is called the “in-lieu-of-tax” payment.
The change would mean Athens City Schools would see cuts of approximately $78,000 in 2013 and approximately $155,000 in the second year.
As it stands, the 15 percent TVA allocates to local schools is split 9 percent to Limestone County and 6 percent to Athens, basically a 60-40 split.
HB 483 specifically calls for increasing the county’s share of the TVA money by 1 percent each year beginning in 2013, and lowering the city schools’ share by 1 percent the same year.
In 2014, the county schools would receive another 1 percent increase and the city schools another 1 percent decrease. Beginning in 2015, the percentages for city and county schools would be determined annually by the County Commission, based on school population.
City school officials have a problem with the bill, not because it called for more equitable disbursement but because of the impact of losing 1 percent each year at time when school systems are already strapped following three years of proration.
Superintendent Dr. Orman Bridges Jr. said school officials had asked that the split between the systems stay as it is right now because of being hit with lack of funding. County schools opposed this and the two systems agreed to try to work out a compromise. However, after meeting with lawmakers and county school board members, no agreement was reached.
Initially, school officials were also concerned with the wording of the bill addressing the year 2015. The wording did not spell out that the TVA money for Athens City Schools and Limestone County Schools should be used for students in the Limestone County. Their fear was that the new Madison City School that will open in August in a Madison-annexed portion of Limestone County would receive a cut of the TVA money based on the school’s entire population rather than the number of students actually attending the school from Limestone County.
Some language in the bill has been corrected after being addressed by the school board with members of the House and Senate. The changes include referring to Athens City Schools and Limestone County Schools specifically instead of referring to the school systems as District 1 and District 3.
However, the Athens City School Board is still not entirely pleased.
“We are very disappointed in our local legislators that took it upon themselves to take funding from the Athens City School system without first communicating with us,” Athens school board President Russell Johnson told The News Courier before the meeting.
State Rep. Dan Williams, R-Athens, introduced the bill in the House, and state Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, will sponsor the Senate bill. Board members said it was advertised before they knew anything about it.
Members of the board invited Williams and Holtzclaw to the meeting Thursday. However, the Legislature was in session in Montgomery and neither was able to attend.
Holtzclaw prepared this statement to be read at the meeting: “I cannot be clearer in stating that while some are focused on supporting the children in a system, I must focus on supporting children of the entire county. The changes proposed in this bill are simply about the equitable distribution of the people’s tax dollars across the entire county. It is worth noting that the current distribution is 60 percent to Limestone County and 40 percent to Athens City, while the overall student population is 74 percent Limestone County and 26 percent Athens City. The 60/40 distribution has not been adjusted in well over a decade and there is no record as to why this funding allocation was earmarked in this manner as opposed to by the average daily membership, which is used for all other allocations. It is important to note that while not clear in the bill, the 'stair-step' redistribution over several years as introduced in the legislation is designed to mitigate the overall impact of redistribution to Athens City School’s approximately $30 million annual budget.”
Johnson said before the meeting the bill has a lot of winners and one loser: “Unfortunately, Athens students are the loser this time,” he said. “With the three years of proration we have been through we have had to make many difficult cuts, and we were hoping this year would be different,” Johnson said. “Because of this bill, we again will have to go to our teachers and students and ask for more sacrifices.”
Donna McDaniel, legislative committee chairwoman for Athens City Educators, said before the meeting the bill would definitely hurt the city system. She said teachers have cut everything they can cut and the community has done what it could to help keep schools operating. At this point, she said, schools will receive no library money for the next four years, no textbook money for four years, no professional development for four years, decreasing classroom-supply money for three years (last year teachers received $135 per teacher), no money to schools for common supplies for four years as well as higher student-teacher ratios, which could be detrimental to the system.
Johnson and others are also upset about a portion of the bill that reserves future increases in the TVA fund to be used, in part, to create, equip and staff a legislation office in Athens.
“Hopefully our legislators will use the new legislative office this bill creates to communicate with us better on issues affecting our schools,” Johnson said before the meeting.