Q&A: Constituent Questions

As most readers now know, I serve on our local school board.  That’s why much of my writing has to do with education, government, and children.  This morning on Facebook, a gentlemen who’s recently moved back to town asked several questions that I’d like to answer, in a format better suited to a longer response.

1) how does the school system operation get the funds to operate; where does the money come from and what is the source?

The school system receives funding from the federal government (4%), the state (41%), Anderson and Roane Counties (27%), and the City of Oak Ridge (28%).  Funds from the federal government are fairly restricted to specific uses, and state funding (known as BEP) comes with significant strings attached.  State law dictates a minimum in matching funds from counties, although nearly all contribute more than the statutory minimum since state funds+county minimums isn’t adequate — in Oak Ridge or anywhere else.  [Source: p. i, ORS FY14 Budget]

2) the sales tax enacted for the HS Project: is that paid to the ORSS or CoOR?

Sales taxes are all submitted to the State, and the local option (about 2.5% of the 9.75% sales tax) is returned to the County Trustee.  Of the local option sales taxes collected in any given county, half is divided equally (proportionate to enrollment) between all the school systems in the county.   In Anderson County, Oak Ridge gets about 1/3, Clinton City gets just a little bit, and Anderson County Schools gets almost 2/3.  The other half — the half not designated by state law for education — goes to the local government in the jurisdiction where it was collected.  So, if the item was purchased in Oak Ridge, half of the local option sales taxes is split between the three school systems, and the other half goes to the City of Oak Ridge.

After the County superseded the tax rate, the school board unanimously approved a resolution (requiring a like resolution by City Council) that the schools would continue to contribute the schools’ portion of the half-cent collected in Oak Ridge — exactly what the referendum specified — to the City for debt service on the high school.  However, the City never even voted on that resolution, so it’s meaningless unless and until they do.

3)  from the published budget report there is an overage in the School Budget: is that correct or am I reading that wrong?

No, the budget is balanced.  It has to be, by law.  Revenues are budgeted at $55,485,152, and expenditures are budgeted at the same amount.  [Source: p.1-3 of the budget, linked in the answer to question 1]

4)   if there ARE excess and above spending in the school account, what is the money for and where did it come from, and why is there an excess of funds when the BOE ask the CoOR for funding? Granted the City should pay the funding for the MOE, but again what is the $5,000,000 excess in the school account?

We, like the City and the State, have an undesignated fund balance.  If, at the end of the year, any money remains, it goes into the fund balance.  The state requires that we keep an amount equal to 3% of our budget (this year, that would be  $1,664,554.56) in the fund balance, that we are not allowed to spend for any purpose without state approval.  There are also restrictions — fund balance cannot be used for salaries.

An example of what fund balance is used for would be last Spring, when a large sinkhole suddenly developed in the middle of the soccer field (and of course, this had to happen during soccer season).  It had to be repaired, and it had to be repaired immediately.  Sometimes, fund balance is used for one-time purchases during the budget process, when local revenues are inadequate to meet needs.  That happened this year: funding to add additional computers to the middle schools, required for mandated on-line testing, was taken from fund balance.  It’s a good practice to keep fund balance at 12% of the budget, but we’re substantially below that.

Because we cannot legally overspend the budget (one can go to jail for that, I think) and it’s darn near impossible to project expenses to the penny, we typically end the year with a little bit left over.  Not much, but a little bit.  Over the last 70 years, we’ve built up a bit of a reserve, but over the last 15 years, it has dwindled as local funding failed to keep up with the pace of inflation.

*  *  *

School Board members can be easily reached: if you click on any member’s name, you’ll be taken to a page with a phone number and e-mail link.  Thanks for asking, and let me know if I can be of further assistance.

12 Years Later

Of course I remember where I was on September 11, 2001.  I remember the perfect blue sky; I was at an outdoor Chamber Coffee held at Barge Waggoner Sumner and Cannon in Commerce Park.   I was among friends and colleagues, enjoying a beautiful Tuesday morning.

I was talking with Ray Evans, whose office was hosting the get-together, when his secretary came out the door and told him that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  I left, and listened in my car to the news.

I was watching CNN in the kitchen as I worked at my sewing machine, believing it to be a horrible accident, when the second plane hit. I watched it happen in real time.  My blood ran cold, and the next hour was an exercise in just keeping calm.

When my husband came home before lunch — Y-12 sent everyone home as a precaution — I decided that it was time to go get the kids from school.  Yeah, before lunch.  I wasn’t the only one… I think about half the student body checked out early that day.

* * *

Today is a day that looks very much the same, with that perfect early autumn sky.  So much is different: we’ve spent billions on security and military action and are safer in some regards, but no safer in others.  So much is the same: we cannot prevent the unthinkable.   Osama Bin Laden is dead, as is Saddam Hussein, but there are others who wish us harm — some of whom live among us.  We don’t know who they are.  In most cases, we don’t even know why they hate us.

* * *

Today I think about my firstborn, working in a landmark Chicago skyscraper.  I think about how people have changed since then, with far greater numbers looking for conspiracy around every corner.  It seems like — at least locally — more people get their news from Facebook than from the news media, and that many in the news business have gravitated toward either breaking the story first (with little emphasis on getting it right), or toward emphasizing the sensational over simply providing information.

We have greater instant access to more information than ever before, but as a society, it seems we’re less informed than we were a half-century ago.  We grab mcnuggets of information on the fly, not bothering to question, fact-check or seek more in-depth resources.  If we’re less informed, are we not at greater risk — not necessarily just from terrorism, but all manner of harm?

We must remember how to think for ourselves, to access information from both sides of any issue, and try to become the strong, conscientious people who built this great nation.  Only then will we be safe, not only from outside threats, but from our own self-destruction.

 

 

Legislative Graveyard

Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic.  Stacey Campfield’s widely-ridiculed bill to reduce public assistance payments to parents whose children make bad grades isn’t really dead and buried, just relegated to Summer study.  Sort of like a kid who failed a class, but gets another chance.  Except that Campfield isn’t going to miss a meal or have his phone cut off for this failed effort.

Statistically, children from lower income households are more likely to have difficulty with academics.  Solving the problem though, requires understanding why — and there are multiple reasons, not all of which apply to every child.

1) Many children from economically disadvantaged homes don’t have access to the same resources — books in the home, a computer with internet service, travel and experiences, parents who have the time or ability to help with homework, etc.

2) The number of families on public assistance are disproportionally single-parent households, where the parent-in-residence may be working multiple minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet.

3) Families on public assistance are much more likely to have lower levels of education themselves; in some cases, this results in education not being valued, but in others, a simple inability to help.  Sometimes, it means that the vocabulary used in the home is much more limited than what the more-advantaged peers are exposed to; sometimes, it means that a child didn’t get enough sleep because he has to work to help support the family.  All of those things impact school performance.

4) Like it or not, genetics usually does play a role in academic performance.   While children from the deep end of the gene pool may go through hard times, it’s not likely to be long-term.  In the case of generational welfare recipients, the kids are much more likely to be from the shallow end.

Lastly, grades are not the ultimate measure of learning.   We, as a society, tend to equate good grades with mastery and poor grades with failure, but I don’t buy into the fact that poor grades are necessarily a failure to learn — perhaps a failure to comply with expectations.  Longtime readers will recall some of my frustrations with Beta, whose geometry teacher once approached me with the concern that she “has a 110 test average and a 14 homework average.”  Unfortunately, homework counted for a significant part of the grade, so in spite of the fact that she clearly knew the material, her grade wasn’t very good.

I know exactly what the problem was: if she understood the material, she spent her time on homework that she needed to do in order to learn it.  Stuff that she already understood, she didn’t waste time on.  In four weeks, Beta will receive her BS in Physics.   In spite of her unapproved homework methodology, it worked for her.

We need to ensure that children from all socioeconomic backgrounds learn, and reach their fullest potential.  That’s hard, because it’s tough to know exactly what that potential is.  We need to be looking for ways to help, not ways to punish.

Want to ensure that children from families on public assistance can succeed in school, and break the cycle of dependency?  Expand preschool.  Provide computers and internet service that they can take home.  Ensure that they interact with people who expose them to a larger vocabulary, new ideas, and encouragement to succeed.  Challenge them, but respect them as children with potential they don’t even know they have.

There has to be a better way.

 

 

Voice in the Wilderness

If one only read or watched political news, the casual observer might be led to believe that there are no moderates left in the United States of America.

Talking to real people gives a very different impression.  Even people with very strong opinions or strong party loyalty can talk with civility and search for common ground.  We all live under the same constitution, and accept it as the framework from which all other rules are derived.  We will surely differ on interpretations of that constitution, but that’s okay.  It’s better than okay: it’s democracy.

Most people that I know fall somewhere in the middle on the spectrum of polarizing issues, or are at least willing to discuss the merits of various viewpoints.  I would like to believe that this includes most people, but acknowledge that it might just mean that I’ve grown old enough to not waste my time on anyone not willing to engage in a polite and rational — even if spirited — exchange of ideas.   The closed mind is the most grievous of flaws.

My wish for the new year is that rational people will begin to speak up, and vote out leaders who prove unwilling to engage in discussion and compromise.  Nothing is off the table.

We need vigorous discussions about the sale of firearms, about government spending, regulation, and taxes.  We need to consider all viewpoints, but the end result needs to be logical, rational, and positive.  We need to assiduously protect the rights of citizens as guaranteed in the constitution, but not pick and choose the words we read therein.

Not too many years ago, the two political parties would fight tooth and nail until the election, but both understood that after that, the elected needed to work together without regard to party.  It meant that both sides needed to give a little for the sake of the common good.  Today, I’m not seeing much of that.

Debra Maggart was drummed out of the State Legislature for not pushing the “guns in parking lots” bill.  John Boehner was dissed by his own colleagues in the US House of Representatives for the mere suggestion of giving a fraction of an inch on taxes — raising the rates only on the most wealthy.  The gun nuts are defending deer hunting with a semi-automatic assault rifle.

This week, think about speaking up.  Let’s take back our country from the extremes.

 

 

 

Halloween Nostalgia

When I was a child, and when my children were in elementary school, Halloween was a neighborhood holiday.  Kids (even with parents in tow) generally visited only those houses within walking distance, except for the last stop or two of the night to the homes of grandparents and other relatives.Halloween2012

In those times, I looked forward to greeting the neighborhood children.  A few years later, around the turn of the century, there was a new phenomenon of people driving from other parts of town (or other towns) to drop off kids in our neighborhood for trick-or-treat.  In those years, it was not unheard-of to see 200-300 children per night.

Since that time, other neighborhoods have taken over as the “drive-to” destinations.  That’s fine with me — I really like Halloween as a neighborhood holiday, so that I can see how cute they are from year to year.  I really don’t care about seeing kids whose parents brought them in from a neighboring town or county, simply in search of loot.

Neighborhoods tend to age; when my children were young, almost every house on our street had young children.  Now that mine are mostly in college (one almost there, one with a freshly-minted Master’s degree, two in between), I guess the neighbors’ children have similarly aged.  Before too long, the neighborhood will begin turning over again, and young children will return.

I’ll be the old lady that gives out the good stuff, for those brave enough to venture to my door.  There will be scary things to get past along the way… after all, two graves were moved to build this house, and I have it on good authority that there were more than two buried here.  It’s haunted, kiddos, but we don’t give out the cheap stuff.  It’s all chocolate.  It’s the kind of candy your parents want to ration over months.  Or steal.

I’m just a big kid myself, and I absolutely love Halloween.

If you don’t come get it, I’ll have to eat it, and I don’t want cheap candy any more than you do.  Or, thanks to Facebook, I now have the addresses of the children who used to visit, but are now in out-of-state colleges and craving chocolate.  Yeah, they’ll get a care package to carry them through finals.

Three kids came to my door tonight.  I look forward to the day when the little ones return.

Understanding the Sales Tax Fight

It has become apparent to me (and others) in the last couple of weeks since my column ran that many people — maybe most people — don’t really understand how the sales tax is divided between the state, local governments, and schools in Tennessee.

Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal.  Right now though, in Oak Ridge Tennessee, it IS a big deal, because accusations are flying back and forth about whether a sales tax approved in 2004 is being used to pay debt service on the bonds for our new high school.  It is, but it’s not quite that simple.

Fortunately, an informed local citizen — Cathy Toth — has come up with a brief presentation that explains the situation very well, in a graphic format that’s easy to understand.  Well, at least as easy as this one gets.  Check it out here: What Now May 2012

Sales Tax, Sharing, and the High School Debt

The following was submitted to our local newspapers for publication.  It’s already up on the Observer’s website, and will likely appear in the Oak Ridger at some point.

In recent weeks, several guest columns by a City Council candidate or former Council member have alleged that the School Board is “holding the city hostage” or “failing to comply with the voters’ wishes” per the 2004 sales tax referendum.

Neither claim is true.

The fact of the matter is that the City developed the financial model for the new high school financing, and there was concern even before the referendum that if the County superseded the tax rate before five years elapsed, there would be insufficient income from sales tax to make the bond payments.  After five years, it was said to be a non-issue because the City could retire other debt.  Because of that risk, there was an unwritten agreement that the schools would contribute their share in the event that the County superseded the tax rate within five years.

The County did so after just two, on a petition-driven referendum spearheaded by the former Superintendent of Anderson County Schools.  Naturally, the Oak Ridge School Board understood that we had to help out for at least the next three years; payments were actually made for the next five years.

After five years, the payments were called into question, and the School Board was advised by our attorney that such payments were not legal without some written agreement approved by both the Board of Education and City Council.  Thus, payments were suspended.  The money was set aside until such time as an acceptable written agreement could be developed and passed by both.

In the process of developing such a resolution, it came to light that for the last five years, the schools have paid the City not just the half-cent collected in Oak Ridge (as explicitly called for in the referendum), but the schools’ share of the half-cent collected countywide.  Historically this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but over the last decade, retail in Oak Ridge has been stagnant or declining, while retail sales in other parts of the county have been on the rise.

The net result of that discrepancy is that the schools have actually overpaid the City by $1,373,696, simply by transferring the half cent of the schools’ share of countywide taxes instead of just those collected within our city.

A resolution has been drawn up specifically allocating the half-cent collected within the city limits of Oak Ridge – exactly what the 2004 referendum specified – to be voted on by the Board of Education on April 30, and by the City Council shortly thereafter.  This year’s funds, held in reserve, will be transmitted to the City immediately following ratification by both governmental bodies.

However, the problem remains that sales tax collections are not at the levels projected in the City’s 2004 financial plan.  The schools’ share of the half-cent collected in Oak Ridge will not make the bond payments at this point in time. It is unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the recession that began in 2008, so it’s not a matter of a bad plan – just that it didn’t work out as expected.

Some would like for the schools to continue making payments at the previous level, but those are funds designated by the State for the operation of schools.  And, in case no one has noticed, the City’s annual contribution to the school budget has not been keeping pace with the cost of living (not to mention various other costs imposed by the State or Federal governments).

Although the vote has yet to be taken and I can speak for no one but myself, it is my sense that your Board of Education is willing and ready to work with the City Council to establish this tax sharing process, in a way that is legal and properly approved.

Neither side will get everything they want.  The School Board was told that this was a five-year commitment (ending in 2009) at most, and would prefer to pay nothing; City Council would like to have enough revenue to cover the bonds for several decades, regardless of the fact that sales within our city are not generating that amount.  Abiding by the explicit terms of the 2004 referendum is the best compromise.

That is what is contained in the resolution.  Clearly, the best path forward is approval of this resolution, and for City Council to redouble efforts to revitalize retail in Oak Ridge, benefiting both the City and the schools.

Is this even legal?

An accident occurs in the  parking lot of a small, local business — private property — and the drivers exchange information.  The driver at fault admits fault, and readily provides his name, phone number, address, driver’s license number, insurance company (GEICO) and policy number.

A week or so passes before Beta (owner of the injured vehicle) calls GEICO to report the claim.  They take the report, then say they need to talk with their insured.  Okay… but, weeks pass, and the at-fault driver doesn’t return calls to his insurance company.  He doesn’t respond to certified mail.

Or, GEICO says he didn’t respond.  Unfortunately, it’s been our experience over the last few weeks that it’s impossible to get a real person on the phone; you get the privilege of leaving a voice mail, and the one person (Antonia Johnson, Examiner Code F669) who can talk about this claim might call back in a day or two.  Usually at the least convenient time, like in the middle of an upper-division physics class, or when Beta was riding her bike from UT to Island Home.  So, we’re thinking it’s possible he tried to call — maybe multiple times — but just didn’t leave a message.

Benefit of the doubt seems warranted, since he was very polite about the whole thing and did provide accurate information.  Meanwhile, GEICO also called HWTFM at work to get his version of events.

Earlier this week, Beta got a letter from GEICO stating that because they have been unable to contact their customer, and lacking a police report or verification of independent witnesses (evidently, HWTFM is not considered independent; why did they bother him in the first place?), they were dropping the claim.

It took me just one quick phone call to the tire store; the gentleman who answered the phone remembered the accident.  It only took another two minutes before he found an employee who had been in the parking lot at the time, and saw the whole thing.  So, I called GEICO and left a rather terse message to that effect, and provided the Ms. Johnson with the information when she got around to returning my call.

So, she talked to an independent witness who could verify that the white truck pulled out and hit the side of the black truck.  He didn’t know either of the drivers (thus, qualifying him as a truly independent witness), and didn’t write down tag numbers or anything, but gave an accurate description of the vehicles and drivers.

A description which matched, by the way, the cell phone photo that Beta had already e-mailed GEICO.  It showed the front of his white truck, and the side of her black truck, with his body partially in the photo as he leaned on the front bumper of his truck.

Still, GEICO says they cannot settle the claim because the independent witness cannot positively confirm the identity of the man in the white truck.  The man whose name, address, driver’s licence number, etc. is recorded in his own handwriting on a note in Beta’s possession.

WTF?

Beta has an appointment with a GEICO adjuster next week, and Ms. Johnson said that if they can speak with their insured before then, the adjuster will be authorized to cut a check.  If not… we’re right back where we’ve been for six weeks already.

I do believe that the Tennessee Insurance Commission needs to know about this.  And the Better Business Bureau.  And probably some other folks in a position to right this wrong.

Meanwhile, if you’re shopping for insurance, caveat emptor: the lizard’s not nearly as helpful as he is on TV.

 

 

 

About the sales tax…

In this morning’s Oak Ridge Observer, guest columnist Trina Baughn referenced a post from this blog from April 14, 2006, regarding a gentleman’s agreement between the mayor of Oak Ridge (at that time, David Bradshaw) and the Anderson County mayor (at that time, Rex Lynch) about when or if the County planned to supersede the sales tax.

Unfortunately, she only told half the story.

That particular gentleman’s agreement was that the County would not do  so for at least five years.  Thus, when the financing was planned for the new Oak Ridge High School, the financial model assumed that Oak Ridge would continue to collect its share of the higher sales tax for five years, then that the County would supersede.   However, it was prudent to make a contingency plan in the event that the County didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, which indeed, they did not.

That contingency was, if the County superseded the sales tax rate before five years elapsed, that the school system would remit it’s portion of the new dollars from the County share of sales taxes to the City, to go toward bond repayment on the high school.  But only until the five year period was up, when the City had assumed they’d lose that money anyway.  This too, was a handshake deal — there was never a Board vote, nothing signed.

The schools held up their end of the arrangement, not only through the five years from the initial referendum in 2004, but several years beyond.  However, the time is well past due for the City to adhere to the original financial model, which assumed that the County would have superseded the tax rate anyway.

The schools’ attorney has advised that Oak Ridge Schools cease making these payments, and has been in communication with the City.  Because attorneys are involved, it would be unwise to go into the detail and links I would otherwise provide.   But our Superintenent, our Director of Business Services, and our former School Board Chairman, John Smith, all recall the facts exactly as stated here.

The school system held up our end of the agreement, and then some.  To continue making these large payments to the City would put the City at risk of running afoul of the State’s “maintenance of effort” law, and deprive our students of operational funds that the State has designated for the purpose of their education.

How Long?

Four years, nine months, and nine days have passed since I quit smoking.

But in times of stress (like this afternoon), it seems like I could pull into the convenience store, buy a pack, and light one up — just like the old days.  I don’t know why the poison filling my lungs would feel so good, but it would.

I would gladly stand on the deck, with my back pressed against the outside wall to avoid the rain, just to feel that calm wash over me.

But I won’t.  I know myself: a pack would lead to a carton, and that carton to a lifetime of slavery to cigarettes.  To standing outside when everyone else is inside.  To having to build in extra time every day for a habit that would eventually kill me.

I’ll settle for a Tom Collins and keep cleaning the house for company tomorrow.  I just wish that someone could tell me that someday, that feeling will go away entirely.

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