August 5, 2008

Sullivan Saves Driver’s Ed

By Mac McLean, Bristol Herald Courier, Va.

Aug. 5--BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. -- Sullivan County Board of Education members chose safety over savings Monday night when they rejected a plan to cut the school system's behind-the-wheel driver's education program.

"This deals with the health and safety of our students," said Dan Wells, a board member who sells insurance. "Six thousand young people die each year in automobile accidents."

The county's driver's education program has two phases -- the first allows students to get experience driving actual vehicles on the road, and a classroom portion that is taught as part of a high school health class.

Director of Schools Jack Barnes said two teachers offer the behind-the-wheel classes at all four county high schools. He estimated that about 300 students take the classes each year.

But Barnes said demand for the program far outweighs its available space and some principals suggested cutting it because they can not offer the training to everyone who wants it.

Barnes also said the two people who taught the behind-the-wheel classes left the school system this year. One teacher retired while the other took a medical leave of absence, he said.

He said the school system has other teachers who are qualified to teach the courses, but they are busy with other classes.

Barnes said cutting the program could save the school system $130,000 to $140,000 this year. The state only pays about $20,000 of the cost, he added.

Board members, however, unanimously rejected Barnes' proposal and decided to keep the program intact. They also voted to continue offering East High School's heating, ventilation and air conditioning classes and keep its teacher.

Barnes proposed cutting both programs as part of the school system's budget for this year. The $90.2 million spending plan -- not factoring in Monday's decision to keep the programs -- has a $1.5 million deficit.

"We'll have to find that money somewhere else," Barnes said after the board's decision. "That's fine and we'll deal with it."

Barnes said taking this money from the system's reserve accounts would leave a $4.2 million balance at the start of the coming budget cycle.

The county government and its school system are currently operating under a continuing budget resolution because county officials have not approved the budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

Barnes said he will continue to look for ways to curb costs before the budget is finalized, and may ask the County Commission for more money for this year's spending plan.

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