School board balks at Learning Center changes

Xavier Smith • May 8, 2018 at 12:56 PM

The Wilson County Board of Education did not make any changes to the Learning Center rates Monday, as it opted to hash out issues regarding a potential increase during a future special called meeting.

Board members reached an impasse on the district’s recommendation to increase the Learning Center rates $60 per week per child starting July 1. The proposed weekly rate for children up to 36 months would be $195, and $185 for children 37-60 months. The sibling discount would be $20.

Watertown Middle School teacher Carrie Thompson, who was named a Wilson County Teacher of the Year at her school this year, addressed the board prior to the group’s discussion on the potential increase.

“For years, I have taken time away from my own family to prepare lessons, put finishing touches on my classroom, stay later and come earlier for extra incentives or motivate students, and constantly take from my family financially to fund activities and expenses in my classroom. We all do,” said Thompson, who said teachers felt unappreciated when they learned about the potential increase.

“This rate increase will cause some teachers to allocate upwards of 50 percent of their salaries to daycare. I have personally spent higher prices for daycare over the years, but childcare was actually a benefit that brought me to Wilson County.”

Thompson said she took a $9,000 pay cut to come to Wilson County and convinced her husband the move would work because of the savings on childcare services. 

The board passed on the district’s recommendation, as well as board member Wayne McNeese’s motion to use this year’s growth money to cover the about $600,000 shortage for the program for a year.

“We’ve got to do something other than tack it on the back of our teachers. We’ve got to cut expenses. We’ve got to really analyze how to cut the expenses out of there. There’s got to be a way,” McNeese said.

Board attorney Mike Jennings said he could not answer the question of legality in taking BEP growth money and using it for the program as he cited state law.

“No Tennessee foundation program school funds or any required local matching funds shall be used in connection with the operation of these programs,” Jennings said.

He said the issue surrounds the definition of “required.”

Board member Gwynne Queener’s motion to increase rates $30 per week per child also failed due to a lack of a second.

Wilson County Deputy Director of Schools Mickey Hall said the district could handle the $30 per week increase Queener suggested, but only if Learning Center locations were closed at Carroll Oakland, W.A. Wright, Mt. Juliet and Lakeview elementary schools.

Hall said students at those locations would still be able to access one of the other Learning Center locations, and some of the 14 staff members at those locations would be eligible to work in the district’s Kids Club.

Board member Tom Sottek questioned the possibility of making all Learning Center staff part time, which he estimated would still leave about a $250,000 shortfall for the program.

Anne Barger, supervisor of early childhood and family resources, said she believed the change is not feasible for several reasons.

“Right now, we are already short – in Kids Club especially – trying to find part-time workers. Our starting pay for a part-time worker is $9.50 an hour. If you look around Wilson County, you see help wanted signs. We are competing,” Barger said.

Wilson County‘s unemployment rate of 2.7 percent in March was the fourth lowest in the state behind Williamson, Davidson and Rutherford counties, respectively.

“I think we all agree nobody wants to see this program go away, but like Wayne says, we’ve got to, if there’s one out there, find a solution. We cannot continue to lose the kind of money that we’re losing every year to sustain the program,” said board chairman Larry Tomlinson.

The special called meeting will likely take place prior to next month’s board meeting.

The school board approved a $20 weekly rate increase for its Learning Center last year and voted to keep two locations open until the end of the current school year.
The board voted last May to increase fees for the Learning Center, a childcare program for children of Wilson County teachers until the children reach school age, during a three-year period after school leaders indicated the Kids Club program has subsidized the program in the past few years.

Hall discussed the program during the May 2017 meeting and said the program was introduced as a recruitment and retention tool for educators.

“Back then, we didn’t have the software in place that we could tell them that or not,” Hall said last May. “Now we have the evidence to show the Kids Club is breaking even. TLCs are not.”

Hall continued his discussion on the Learning Center finances last week, noting the potential $60 increase could not eliminate issues with the program.

“We do not have one site breaking even in this program. All the sites are losing money. The board of education does not put any money into this program. That’s a misnomer,” he said.

Hal answered questions that were raised about the program, including the possibility of hiring part-time workers instead of full-time workers, which would eliminate the need to provide insurance and retirement benefits.

He said he felt the switch would not work based on the number of people the district would need to hire, along with the lack of benefits for them.

Board member Bill Robinson said last week he’s met with several teachers, including former Wilson County Teacher of the Year winners, who voiced concern about the potential increase and its impact on teachers. Robinson pointed to the district’s persistence in building a new central office during his comments, noting the district had to find additional funds to complete the project.

“We found a way to get this done, now I think we can find a way somehow. I’m not asking for a tax increase. If we found that $4.5 million, we can find $675,000, and I’m not asking the taxpayers,” he said at the time.

Sottek pointed to teacher pay as a source of the problem, noting teachers would still be faced with detrimental daycare costs if the Learning Center closed and they were forced to use private entities.

The group grappled during the meeting a year ago about the appropriate way to cover the needed funds, estimated at $350,000, which included taking the money from the district’s general purpose fund, raising the fees in one year or eliminating the program, which no board member indicated was a viable option.

Hall said the district raised the program’s rate in 2014 when the board approved a $9.50 an hour starting pay for all school system employees. He said, at the same time, several parents of Kids Club children, the after-school program for school-aged children, said they believed they were supplementing the Learning Center.

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