Dr. Jeff Perry, Hamblen County school superintendent, said Tuesday night that there would be no mask mandate as children go back to school on Aug. 5.
But debate erupted during the regularly-scheduled school board meeting around federal dollars coming to the school system and how to spend that money. The Hamblen County school board approved a budget for ESSER 3.0, or the Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund.
The board voted 7-2 Tuesday night to appropriate $20.2 million in the federal funding. School board members Dr. Shahin Assadnia and Clyde Kinder voted no.
School board member Roger Greene questioned why there was no money in the proposed budget for HVAC renovations at Morristown-Hamblen East High School.
“We started out with $5.5 million at East High School for fresh air,” Greene said. “Now, it’s zeroed out.”
School board members were told to give recommendations to the administration concerning how to spend the $20 million of federal money and the administration culled that list on a needs basis.
Perry said Tuesday that the board had agreed $5 million would be spent on a new Lincoln Elementary School and $5 million for renovations to open classrooms at Lincoln Middle School.
He said he had spoken to architects and if the school system did HVAC improvements at East High School it would cost around $8 million to $9 million.
“The $5 million would not take care of everything,” Perry said.
School administrators had also set aside $1.4 million in the proposed ESSER budget to help acquire the Talley Ward Recreation Center from the city of Morristown. That proposal has been scuttled.
School board members asked where that money had been moved.
Buddy Smith, assistant director of Hamblen County schools, said there was a $300,000 deficit in the school budget and it helped make up for the shortfall. He also said the money was being used for guidance counselors and SROs.
Some school board members also asked about hiring an additional SRO at one of the middle schools. One of the ideas was to hire a bookkeeper instead of an accountant to keep up with the millions of dollars in federal funding the school system had received over the last year.
Smith warned the school board that would pay for one year for a school resource officer and next year the board would have to find the money.
The board decided to not to hire an accountant that would have been a supervisory position in order to save $100,000. But Perry warned the board, saying the federal money is supposed to be allocated for specific reasons and if a bookkeeper could not keep up with the amount of work, it could mean future headaches with federal officials.
“I’m trying to keep us out of trouble,” Perry said.
School board members also voiced concern about how the school system has conducted business. Perry routinely emails school board members information concerning issues that they will be discussing in meetings.
Perry said some of the information being discussed Tuesday night had been sent out via email.
Some school board members, however, said more needs to be brought out in the public.
“When you send those emails that doesn’t mean I concur with it,” Greene said. “I’d like for it to be brought to a board meeting so we can discuss it.”
“That sounds like sometimes when you send those emails it looks like we’re trying to do something behind closed doors,” Kinder said.
“Mr. Kinder that is unfair,” Perry replied. “That is unfair. You can only vote in open session, but in terms of getting information... We’re in the same position as tonight. You guys make the decision on the budget and you tell us what to do. Go ahead.”
After tweaks with additional money for a school resource officer, the board approved the proposed ESSER budget.
Staff will now report to school on Aug. 2 and Aug. 5. Perry told the board that masks would not be required when school opens. There will also be full capacity at sporting events. The school system will go back to almost pre-pandemic operations.
There will still be limited quarantining and school trips and visitors will be limited.
Perry also addressed some rumors he said he had heard about vaccinations.
“We have no intent to require vaccinations,” he said.