COVINGTON -- The Newton County Board of Education has approved a tentative budget for next school year, but a few changes may still be to come.
After a long discussion, the board unanimously approved acceptance of a $149.5 million budget as presented with the understanding that it will revisit it by June 25, when a final budget is expected to be approved.
Proposed revenues total nearly $133.9 million, while proposed expenditures total nearly $140 million. The remaining balance will be made up by a reserve fund that will be carried over this year, still leaving more than $9.5 million at the end of next school year.
The board was considering changes to transportation for the Ombudsman alternative school and also the addition or rearranging of nurses.
Newton County School System officials told the board that almost daily law enforcement officers are called due to extreme fights on board the Ombudsman bus.
Currently, it costs about $113,000 to operate the bus, that services 43 students at three pick-up and drop-off points at various times of the day to accommodate the varying Ombudsman schedule. One eight-hour bus driver runs the route.
Fewer than 200 students in sixth through 12th grades are enrolled in the school; other students are transported by their parents and more than 30 are on a special needs bus.
NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews recommended that the board approve a bus monitor for the bus, which would cost about $24,000 annually, or discontinue the service completely, like many other school systems around the state do for alternative schools.
Board member Eddie Johnson said he does not agree with the discontinuation of bus services for public school students, calling it an "insult" and showing a "lack of concern."
"I don't want to participate in educational assassination," he said. "Cost should not be a determining factor. ... I'm not for taking transportation away from students."
He later added that he drove a bus for the former alternative school, Sharp Learning Center, for two and a half years and "never had a problem." He said that the principal would let him call him, and if Johnson had a misbehaving student, Johnson would inform him that he was not going to pick up that student the next day.
Mathews added that students who misbehave on the buses are punished and not allowed back on the bus, but still hazardous problems continue daily.
Board member Shakila Henderson-Baker noted that she would like to find a "happy medium" to solve the problem because nine of the routes are only servicing one or two students at a time, which she didn't feel was equitable. She asked school officials to consider various options like consolidating routes to determine a more fiscally savvy operation.
Fellow board member Almond Turner asked if a School Resource Officer could ride the bus periodically or if the school could find out if the students on the bus have any other means of transportation.
Mike Barr, director of Support Services for NCSS, said if the transportation is eliminated, he would like to use the funds to alleviate pick-up and drop-off times for students with disabilities, who sometimes have to be picked up an hour ahead of regular education students.
Previously, some of the school board members were looking at using the Ombudsman transportation elimination savings to fund more nurses for schools, some of which were cut a few years ago to avoid a budget shortfall.
Currently, six elementary schools, plus each middle school and the three traditional high schools, employee full-time nurses. Others employee part time nurses.
School board Chair Abigail Coggin brought up a concern that she gets calls from parents almost daily about nurses not being at schools at all times and the front office staff not being able to handle all of the problems.
"My fear is being threatened for a lawsuit if something happens," she said.
School officials reported to the board Tuesday that nurses received 62,564 total illness visits to the clinic from August until April, with an average of 391 students seen per day, as well as 16,353 total injury visits to the clinic, with an average of 102 students per day, and 34,178 total medication doses, with an average of 493 students per day.
The cost to have a full-time nurse at each school is about $146,000. Currently, the budget proposes to have a nurse serve part time at Porterdale Elementary School and the Newton College and Career Academy and to add a nurse at the Newton County Theme School.
Johnson made a motion that the board should postpone the addition of nurses at this time, but the motion failed.
School officials plan to bring a nurse report to the board and continue to look at the budget and maybe prioritize to add more nurses as funding becomes available.
The proposed budget also includes four furlough days for staff, instead of the current six, and some teachers may receive a step increase because the state has a minimum salary requirement. The local property tax is expected to drop 6 percent, but school officials plan to collect nearly 100 percent, unlike in years past.
The budget can change until the board approves a final budget in June, which has a meeting date set for June 25. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in the board room of the Newton County BOE building, located at 2109 Newton Drive NE in Covington.