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Education Officials Hope Cuts Won’t Compromise Program Quality

Commissioner Kevin Huffman is proposing a budget plan that cuts total spending by 6.5 percent next year. An upcoming departmental restructuring will help the DOE absorb some reductions, he said, but others “give us some heartburn.”

The state Department of Education anticipates spending $5.2 billion next year, representing one of the largest budgets in state government.

The spending plan results in a $365 million or 6.5 percent overall reduction in over the current year’s budget.

Still, the Department of Education is expanding in certain areas, looking for an extra $53.8 million to adjust for mandatory increases in the state’s education funding formula and another $1.2 million to cover growing costs in existing pre-K classrooms.

“We think that we can do some of the reductions without it compromising program quality,” Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told Gov. Bill Haslam during a budget hearing at the University of Tennessee Knoxville Tuesday.

“I think it’s probably a mix of things that we can absorb and things that give us some heartburn,” he said.

Huffman’s department is on the brink of implementing administrative changes under its Top to Bottom review, a task which became one of Haslam’s signature strategies to approaching state government. If the departmental restructuring can’t absorb those budget cuts, Huffman said he’d let the administration know.

Most of the department’s proposed cuts come as about 352 million federal dollars and $67 million in state funds are set to expire — resulting in the elimination of programs including one to link up student’s health with education programs.

“This is one of the very first things that they ask us about, and we’ve received a lot of letters asking us that we see fit to fund this,” Huffman said at the hearing.

The governor has asked each department to prepare a 5 percent cut from their state-funded portion of the budget. In DOE, that would mean reducing $4.1 billion in state funds by $5.5 million through cuts like reducing travel, eliminating staff at the state’s schools for the blind and deaf and reducing funding for early intervention services for children up to 2 years old with disabilities.

The BEP determines how much money per student schools receive each year. Set in state law, the formula is based on student population growth and cost inflation and is one of the drivers in the state’s increasing costs. State officials say such mandatory increases, when compared to projected revenues, will result in a roughly $400 million budget gap.

The governor is set to pitch his own budget proposal to the Legislature early next year after lawmakers being their spring session in January.

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