With high school activity buses being removed from this year’s Monroe County Schools budget due to the financial crisis, Tellico Plains High School thinks they have found a solution to the expensive cost of transporting athletes to away games.

During last Thursday’s meeting of the Monroe County Board of Education, 3rd District School Board member Sharin Freeman asked the board to consider picking up some of the cost of the maintenance of two activity buses that the Tellico Plains High School Booster Club has recently purchased, whether it be now or in future budget planning.

Tellico Plains High School Principal Russell Harris told the board that the Booster Club paid $26,000 total — $13,000 each — for the buses.

“The reason I was in favor of the Booster Club doing this purchase was because we no longer have the activity buses, which creates two major issues,” said Harris. “One, for example, is that it cost us $300 to get a contractor to take us on an in-county trip recently. If we go to Chattanooga, which is our district in many sports, it’s about $500 (a trip), so we know that even though $26,000 is a lot of money, in the long run we are going to regain that. The other issue is that most of the contractors do not have a bus available, and it’s very hard to get them to. It just made it a lot easier when we had our own activity buses.”

Harris said the club decided to purchase two buses instead of one for a few reasons, as well.

“Sometimes we have two teams going to two different places on the same date,” he explained. “The other reason is that if one of them tears up, we have a spare. Thirdly, we are willing to let other schools use our buses when we’re not using them. For example, if Tellico Plains Junior High School was going to play Madisonville, they could use our bus. We are asking them to pay a small fee, somewhere around $50. As long as we’re not using them, to recoup some money back, that’s our goal.”

Director of Schools Dr. DeAnna McClendon asked Transportation Director Charlie Lee to explain the situation in detail.

“We would need to be able to insure the buses and to do that, the Booster Club would have to donate the buses to Monroe County Schools,” McClendon said. “We could get a memorandum of understanding for the usage, but before that can occur, there has to be an inspection of the buses so Charlie can add them to his inventory list.”

Then, McClendon brought up the biggest issue.

“There is no money for any maintenance and repairs in our budget,” she said, admitting that until recently she was also under the impression that repairs were done in house, but they are not.

Lee said because of the liability of school buses, the repairs are done elsewhere by someone fully certified.

“It’s expensive but with the liability, you can’t do it any other way,” he said. “If you have an accident, they’re going to tear that bus apart and brakes is one of the first things they check. The liability is unbelievable on brakes.”

The school system sends its buses to Chattanooga, Lee explained, to be worked on.

“They tear up a lot and they’re expensive to work on,” he said. “I wish I could give you good figures, but it’s going to take a lot of money to keep a bus on the road. It costs about $5,000 per year to keep a bus on the road and that’s not including labor.”

Among those numbers that Lee mentioned: Tires are $300 each. If you have six tires, it is $1,800. It costs around $300 to fill a bus up with fuel. Brakes are about $1,500 to replace. Fuel injectors range from $2,500 to $3,500. Labor can be $500 or more.

“Our three activity buses we had in recent years, we had to put injectors on all three of them and on two of them, we had to put two sets of injectors on them in three years,” said Lee.

McClendon said Maintenance Director Phillip Carroll did have money in his budget to help provide fuel for one of the activity buses.

Despite the finances, some board members felt like this would be a good opportunity.

“We were spending $27,000 plus a year paying out contractors,” 3rd District’s Jo Cagle said.

Lee explained that maintenance and repairs were cut from his transportation budget during the recent budget crisis.

“We have just enough to fix the Special Education buses during the year, but if anything bad happens, we’re not going to have enough money to finish the year,” he said.

McClendon told the board that Principal Harris had reached out to her previously to see if she would be open to the idea, and she was, but said she asked Lee to come in and meet with Harris and/or the Booster Club to work out the details.

“I don’t know how we came from the conversation between the two of them to today, but today’s the first day that I’ve seen the recommendation to accept these from the Booster Club,” McClendon noted. “Don’t think that we in anyway, staff or anyone, recommended that they go ahead and purchase because we knew we had a lot of different things to work out and we knew we didn’t have any money and couldn’t take on any additional costs.”

“We wouldn’t be able to incur that as a school district budget,” she added. “We just don’t have the money, period, because of the budget crisis. We have gas. We have fuel money, for one bus.”

Harris said regardless of whether the school system funds the maintenance of the buses, the school still plans to use them.

“Even if we have to pay, it’s still going to save us money,” he said. “Now obviously, we’re not going to spend $30,000 on a bus that we paid $13,000 for, but if it’s $5,000, we’re going to keep it rolling.”

“I don’t think Gail and Libby (from Monroe County Finance) are going to give us money for buses if they won’t give us money for teachers,” said 1st District’s Dewitt Upton.

Freeman and Cagle—two of the 3rd District School Board members representing the Tellico Plains area—argued how having the activity buses were a necessity.

“When parents have to start driving kids and the liability there and we get sued,” Cagle told the board.

Freeman said she did not understand why the board could not go ahead and accept the donation of the buses and then look at the budget a year or two down the road to see if they could take over the cost of maintenance.

But if the 2019-20 fiscal year budget is any indication, next year’s deficit is only going to increase.

“That $1.6 is a low estimate. If you think about how the salary schedule increases, you think about other repairs and maintenance that we are going to delay this year, that’s a very conservative figure,” McClendon said. “As we said, a lot of things that we cut from other budgets, some of that is going to have to eventually come back because we just put a Bandaid on the problem.”

McClendon said her recommendation would be to table it until Harris, Carroll, Lee and herself could meet and get a plan and estimates together.

“I am very open to the idea,” she said. “I just want it to be very tight and buttoned up when we present it to you guys so you can feel comfortable saying yes.”

But with football season just a couple weeks away, board members knew the school could not use the buses until they pass inspection and are donated to the school system.

“They would become a part of the Monroe County bus fleet with the understanding that they are only used for Tellico Plains High School, as purchased by the Booster Club,” McClendon said of the donation.

Lee said once the title went through, he could probably get it inspected in a couple days.

“Maybe a week total to get everything done,” he said.

Freeman made a motion to accept the two buses from the TPHS Booster Club and add the buses to the school system’s insurance, with the motion specifically stating that the only expense that Monroe County Schools would be responsible for would be the fuel for one bus. The school would need to pay for the tags, titles, inspection, etc., to get the buses on the road. Cagle seconded Freeman’s motion.

In a roll call vote, both Upton and Harrill passed on the vote, but Harrill eventually voted in favor of it. The motion passed 7-1.

Also at the meeting:

  • After approving a lengthy consent agenda and the minutes from meetings in July, the School Board also approved school fees for the 2019-20 academic year.
  • School resource officer (SRO) contracts were approved with the Town of Vonore, City of Madisonville and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office for this school year.
  • Chairwoman Sonya Lynn addressed the board, saying some questions had come up regarding whether or not the person serving as chair could cast a vote in board decisions.

“Yes, they can,” she said.

Lynn read the state law to the audience, noting that the person serving as chair could participate and make motions as any other board members can. She said a Policy Committee meeting would probably be set soon to add the state law back in as an official board policy so no further questions would come up regarding the issue.

  • In her director of schools report, Dr. McClendon said the school district had looked at state data to see where students are academically.

“There are a few gaps,” McClendon noted, adding that the district would begin to create pacing guides so teachers can know who their students are and how they are performing.

First District’s John Ridgell asked about enrollment numbers for this school year. McClendon said Tellico Plains Elementary and Madisonville Primary schools’ enrollment might be up this year, but all numbers are unofficial.

“No hard numbers yet,” she said. “We’ll be able to report back once we’ve seen all our students. We should know something more solid in about two weeks.”

Ridgell also thanked McClendon for holding the ice cream social at Sweetwater High School.

“There was a good turnout in Tellico too,” said Harrill.

McClendon said Mayfield Daily had agreed to sponsor another ice cream social in Vonore and Bert’s would be sponsoring one in Madisonville.

“We’re working on getting those dates on the calendar and will get those out in a couple weeks,” she said.

  • The student School Board representatives for the 2019-20 school year were also approved. Amanda Henning from Sweetwater High School, Dana Wilson from Tellico Plains High School and Maddie Watts from Sweetwater High School will serve as this year’s student representatives.

The next meeting of the Monroe County Board of Education will be on Thursday, Sept. 12 at 6:30 p.m. at Sweetwater High School.

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