With Nashville government facing revenue declines that officials have dubbed historic, budget talks are growing hotter as the process moves toward its conclusion.
School district officials said Thursday that the latest revenue figures for the district being discussed by the Mayor’s Office could require as much as $20 million in spending cuts for next year, on top of the $15 million the district already plans to trim from its budget. The $15 million in cuts already planned for the district eliminates a net total of 209 school district staff positions.
Those revenue estimates could also, district officials said, represent a decline from last year to this year in the total amount of money allocated from Metro government to Metro Nashville Public Schools. District financial chief Chris Henson told school board members at a finance committee meeting Thursday that a decline in the local funding level for public schools could violate Tennessee’s “maintenance of effort” regulations, which prevent local government bodies from lowering funding levels for school districts.
The Tennessee Department of Education would probably not approve a school district budget that included fewer local dollars than in a previous year, unless the number of students had declined, Henson said.
“They’ve held true to that for years,” Henson said.
Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling told <i>The City Paper</i> Thursday that the numbers he has discussed with the district are only estimates, and that if MNPS cuts an additional $20 million from its budget for next year, that will have been the decision of the district.
The Mayor’s Office’s has no intention to provide less revenue for the district than last year, in terms of the percentages of sales and property tax revenues that are appropriated, Riebeling said. Riebeling added that he’s not yet certain whether the law requires continuation of a specific dollar figure, or continuation of previous years’ percentages.
“I think that different people have different interpretations,” Riebeling said. “Nothing’s changed in terms of our support of schools.”
Maintaining only those percentages would likely result in a lower total revenue figure for Metro schools, given the declines in the last year particularly for sales tax revenues.
Riebeling said he wants to know more about how MNPS plans to spend the millions of federal stimulus dollars the district is set to receive. The Mayor’s Office is due to present a budget proposal for all of Metro government, including MNPS, to Metro Council next week.
“It puts us in kind of a difficult position to … not have any information,” Riebeling said.
MNPS stands to be allocated a total of $24.6 million in federal stimulus Title I dollars to be used specifically for students and schools meeting federal low-income guidelines, and more than $20 million in stimulus dollars Metro will receive through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which can be used only on services for students covered by the act. Any stimulus dollars the district uses to fund recurring expenses will have to be replaced with local dollars after the two-year stimulus program is complete.
Director of Schools Jesse Register told school board members Thursday that there isn’t much the district can do to use stimulus funds to relieve pressure on the operating budget. “A lot” of local governments are curtly working under a “misconception” about the degree to which federal stimulus funds can supplant local dollars, he said.
“We really can’t do that. It’s pretty obvious that we cannot do that,” Register said. “We really don’t have very much flexibility at all.”
School board members are aiming to vote today on a final budget proposal to submit to Dean. The meeting is set for 1 p.m., at the district’s central office, 2601 Bransford Ave.