Metro Schools' budget uncertainties grow as cuts loom

Monday, April 13, 2009 at 11:09pm

More questions than answers remained after Mayor Karl Dean’s first budget hearing with Metro Nashville Public Schools on Monday.

With anticipated revenues for MNPS still up in the air, Dean and school district leaders said they need to meet again, once some unknowns are resolved. The mayor and the district need to learn exactly how much money can be expected from the federal government and the extent to which those dollars can relieve pressure on the operating budget.

“We’re up against the clock,” Dean said. “This is in many ways a historic budget.”

Dean had questions about the district’s use of federal funds, including use of stimulus money as well as the financial ramifications of past misspending of federal dollars allocated to the district. He also wanted more details about the district’s proposed cuts, which trim $15 million in expenditures including the cutting of a net total of 209 school district staff positions.

About 100 of those staff cuts would be teacher positions, and 66 would be custodial jobs. MNPS officials, in answering questions from the Mayor’s Office, said they expect most cuts of teacher positions to be resolved through attrition rather than layoffs. Each year, the district turns over about 200 teachers.

Director of Schools Jesse Register said the teacher cuts will have an effect on student-to-teacher ratios, though the goal is for changes to the district’s staffing formula to tighten efficiencies in terms of elective classes that don’t draw full classrooms of students.

The budget cuts for custodians, however, would likely have to be accomplished through layoffs. District officials said the average number of square feet covered by each custodian won’t exceed urban school averages, even after the cuts.

In response to Dean’s questions about the district’s use of federal dollars, MNPS officials said they’re still waiting to get concrete guidance as to how stimulus money can be spent. Register said total stimulus allocations would likely be less than what officials had hoped, and will probably not relieve pressure on the operating budget “to a great extent.”

“There’s no question that the stimulus will help us,” Register said. “How much relief we actually get is a big question.”

District leaders did report to Dean that estimates for allocations from the Tennessee Basic Education Program (BEP) have been announced, with MNPS due to receive about $195 million. That number is close to a $5.8 million increase over last year’s allocation.

Henson said that increases won’t necessarily amount to a per-student raise in expenditures, as the increase adjusts for inflation and also reflects an increase in Metro students over the last year. The state estimate came with caveats, noting that numbers could change before final allocations are calculated this summer.

In terms of stimulus dollars, officials have learned in the last week that MNPS will receive 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.

MNPS will have a longer wait for Title I funds than most other Tennessee districts, due to years of being out of compliance with federal programs spending. Federal Title I dollars intended for Metro have been frozen since December due to non-compliant spending on the part of MNPS. Most money that will reach schools through the federal stimulus package will flow through Title I, and until Metro resolves its federal spending troubles, Title I stimulus money will be frozen along with the rest.

The school board’s budget and finance committee will meet Tuesday at 4 p.m., immediately before the board’s regular meeting at 5 p.m.