Sullivan Co. mayor calls possible school closures “a fear tactic” ahead of commission meeting

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SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Since last week, many parents, teachers, and students of Sullivan County have feared their schools might close over budget issues. A letter sent out by director of schools David Cox last Thursday warned employees of the problem. 

The Tennessee Department of Education told News Channel 11 that as of October 1, funding will be withheld as the issue is not yet resolved.

But Sullivan County mayor Richard Venable says the possibility of school closures shouldn’t have even been brought up in the first place.

“I look at this, again, as a fear tactic to mobilize people to support them and their position,” Venable said. “And that’s why I spoke out. We should not use our employees, our teachers, our county employees, and our students as pawns in this.”

The issue lies with the school budget submitted to the Tennessee Department of Education. This budget failed a Maintenance of Effort Test ensuring it met state funding requirements per student.

SEE ALSO: Sullivan County Schools at odds with county commission over system potential closure as state funding deadline looms

The mayor says the school board presented their suggested budget to him early this summer. The county commission ultimately decided to alter it before submitting it to the state in July.

“And the result was, the school department filed a different budget than we did,” the mayor said. “This is the first time that I know of in history that we’ve ever gotten to the state level with a different budget.”

Now the state warns Sullivan County Schools could lose more than four million dollars a month until the school system finds a way to increase funding. But the mayor says communications between the commission and school board are currently nonexistent. Venable said he hasn’t heard from the school board since earlier this summer before the budget was passed.

“The communications are not good. We can find a way to improve them. It’s just a matter of personalities working together,” Venable said.

SEE ALSO: Sullivan Co. community reacts to potential school shutdown

The county commission has called a special meeting on Wednesday night to discuss the issue. The mayor says he doesn’t yet know if the commission will grant the school board the additional funding they’re asking for. 

“I’ve talked to a few commissioners and there are some that are willing to locate possible solutions,” he said. “I’ve talked to others who say, ‘no, we’re right, and we’re sticking to our guns.'”

The mayor says the school system does have an unreserved cash balance of over 17 million dollars.

“There’s certain restrictions on the use of that money. But if we got to that point, let’s say the state withholds their BEP funding, they could operate for a few months on their cash flow,” he said.

News Channel 11 reached out to Sullivan County Schools for a response on Monday. Director David Cox said the school board will be releasing additional facts on the complicated budget situation sometime Tuesday. It will be available to the public on the school’s website. The school board has not yet made any official decisions on how to move forward.

“They’ve made the threat,” Venable said. “I guess the ball’s going to be in [the commission’s] court on Wednesday by saying, ‘let’s solve this thing.’ And maybe we can, maybe we can’t.”

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