With Looney Defying County Cut to WCS Budget, 2 Versions to be Drafted

Your property taxes could go up this year, depending on which budget passes the county commission.

The county is created two budgets for the coming fiscal year 2017-2018 and they will publicly post the budgets for the public to see.

One of the budgets is $5 million more than the other. The difference is due to a dispute between how much Williamson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney said the district needs next year and what the county budget committee said he will have to make do with.

The $5 million would represent a 5-cent tax rate increase, or about a 2.5 percent increase in absolute amount paid. The current tax rate for this year is $2.15 per $100 of taxable assessed property value. Nearly three-quarters of the budget, which last year totaled $515 million, goes to the school system.

In late April, Looney proposed a WCS-board approved school budget of $343 million, but the budget committee in looking to avoid raising taxes two years in a row, only approved $338 million. The $338 million budget was approved 4-1. Commissioner Dana Ausbrooks, who also works for WCS as legal counsel, was the only member to not support the budget decrease.

The $338 million represents a $16 million increase in the WCS budget over last year, when it was appropriated $322 million.

Despite the vote against his budget, Looney said he will not cut $5 million.

“They are basically throwing down the gauntlet, saying, ‘This is what we are going to do,'” Todd Kaestner, Commissioner 5th District said. “I don’t know what to think of the attitude the education department has. They basically just say, ‘We are efficient, and this is what we are going to do.'”

There has been some public tension between the county commission and their director of schools over funding requests. Looney was not shy about expressing his opinion of the potential 1.5 percent cut in the school budget. After the April 27 budget meeting where the cut was first discussed, he sent out this tweet:

In other tweets he made his disapproval of the cut clear, stressing the danger to the quality of the school system’s future. Public pressure mounted from there as a vote on funding a Brentwood and Page Middle and High School expansions neared, and it appeared as if the commission was dragging its feet on the approval that would have affected the just-passed rezoning plan if it was not funded.

On the other hand, Kaestner said he felt like there was a bit of “political theater” going on on WCS’s part that helped create public pressure on the commission. A Facebook group sprouted up called Fund Our Schools which arrived en masse at the May 8 commission meeting where the funding passed unanimously.

“I believe the funding resolution was always going to have passed,” Kaestner said. “We all know the importance of supporting our schools and we must all work together to figure out this financial obligation we are facing.”

Looney has said that the only possible place he could cut $5 million was to hire fewer teachers than planned for. The district, with nearly 39,000 students, adds on average about 2,000 new students per year, necessitating new teacher hires.

Kaestner is not so sure that claim is an absolute.

“Though the number of students is projected to increase by 4 or 4.5 percent, and the total WCS budget increase is 5 percent, so I don’t think his number has too much fat in it,” he said. “But I am sure at the same time certainly there is money they could take out without hiring fewer teachers.”

According to Kaestner, perhaps it might make more sense for Looney to consider the possibilities of reducing staff in administration, for example, a department which has a higher average salary per employee than teachers.

Kaestner voted against an across-the-board wage increase for county employees of 4 percent last year. The measure passed, and it came off a 5 percent increase over the previous year. He felt that the county could have avoided a tax increase and headed off at the pass many of the problems that have been presenting themselves over the past several months as the commission has sought solutions to pay for the new schools without a tax increase. Many commissioners feel there would not be enough votes to pass a budget that included an increase for the second straight year.

“If we had held off and passed, instead, a 3 percent wage increase, it would have generated $37 million over the time that the schools could have gotten,” he said.

Kaestner has been frustrated at the entire process of how the commission and school district have handled the capital requests to pay for the needed schools.

“If we took $1 million off the schools operating budget each year, that would generate $15 million for new schools right now,” he said.

Between the two ideas, he felt the more than $50 million dollars they would have generated would have basically ameliorated or even eliminated all the last-minute scrambling to find a way to fund new schools and eliminated the need for a tax-hike budget this year in one fell swoop.

“Personally, I am kind of mad at the commission. The reason I voted against the wage increase [last year] was because I knew we’d have all these capital costs coming down this year, though we had not been officially told that yet. But I was looking at, can we do this without raising taxes?”

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