Seeking Hope

Over the last month or so of confinement, I have actively sought to recognize something positive each day.  Although it doesn’t make the crisis go away, it does preserve my mental well-being; gratitude is an essential component of fundamental happiness.  These are often small things: that the rose bush my children gave me for Mother’s Day is blooming, that the air is cleaner, or that we’re receiving far less junk mail every day.

Although I’m missing out on some work opportunities that I was looking forward to, I find that we’re spending much less, so the economic impact on my family isn’t too stressful.  My children are all still employed, though adapting to modified schedules or exclusively telecommuting.  I’m grateful that they are in positions where that is possible.

That said, I fully recognize that not everyone is so fortunate.  There are many people who are unable to work from home, so they’re either forced to risk their health (and that of anyone in their household), or they are unemployed.  Friends who own small businesses have been forced to close, and some may not be able to re-open for weeks or more.

History has shown that, until we have a vaccine or a cure (likely a year or more away for the former), we will likely be faced with a backlash in the coming months that could be even worse than the current infection rate.  Biological sciences is not my strong suit, so I don’t know if the reason is a mutation of the virus, or simply the behavior of human beings liberated from quarantine.  In the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, it appears to have been a combination of the two.

How will we recover?  While not very uplifting, as the thesis is a decline in how the rest of the world views our country in our response to this crisis, this article plants a seed of hope:


Is it time for a new, New Deal?

Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have imagined myself saying such a thing.  Then again, twenty years ago, there wasn’t such a huge divide between the top 0.1% and the rest of us.

While The New Deal came long before I was born, I recognize that I have benefited from many aspects of it.  Just a couple that come to mind are TVA, which supplies my power and the lakes I enjoy, our interstate highway system, as well as a long list of CCC projects including national parks.

What might a new, New Deal look like?  One of the infrastructure needs that comes to mind is supplying high speed internet throughout the country.  There’s a lot more, but that’s a continuing conversation for another day.

The Pandemic

Wow — my last post was three years ago.  But now, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, I find myself with a bit more time and maybe some extraneous thoughts to purge.  So much has changed since I started this blog; namely, in the beginning I had four children at home, now I have none.  One grandson, born amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Oregon, has joined the family.

Despite the pandemic, I was there.  We arrived early, quarantined for two weeks in an AirB&B, and got to hold and spoil him for a few days before returning home.  It was hard to leave, but I grew increasingly concerned that, had we stayed until our originally planned return, we might not be able to get home at all.

But home I am, with He Who Tames Flying Monkeys, Delta (who is working from home for the foreseeable future), canine Loki, feline Tesla, and avian Georgie.  I have learned that effective meetings can be conducted via Zoom, and find myself wondering why anyone ever has any other kind of meetings.  I miss my favorite waiter at Gallo Loco, which has closed, and I miss Friday evenings at Crafter’s Brew — though I’m most grateful that they’re still open for an hour or so a day for growler refills.  [Helpful hint: 3-liter cranberry juice bottles hold more than a standard growler.]

I still maintain an interest in education, and worry what this greatly-extended Spring/Summer break will bring for the 4,800+ students in this district, that I consider “mine.”  Since my last writing, we’ve gone to 1:1 devices for all students grades 2-12, but elementary students don’t take their laptops home.  Now, with no school, I’m wondering if that’s a mistake.  How many might be playing games in Dreambox (math) if they had their own computers?  Some families have devices the kids can use, but some don’t.  I worry about our teachers, who are having to come up with distance learning for their students, with little or no professional development in that area.  I really worry about the high school seniors, who will graduate — but without the standard trappings of a prom, senior week, graduation exercises, etc.

I wonder why Ruth’s Chris (one of the most expensive steakhouses in which I’ve ever dined) got a bailout, but the local mom-and-pop restaurants that I prefer, got nothing.  I wonder why people who got tax refunds got a stimulus deposit right away, but the people who have to pay (though well within the guidelines for a stimulus check) got nothing.

I wonder if there will ever be such a thing as “normal” again.  I want to go see my parents, but having flown cross-country a week ago, I am refraining until it’s been two weeks.  I’m staying home.

Dear Teacher

As you prepare to go back to school in a little over a week, I want you to take one thing with you:  thank you.

So, the intro is a little rambling, but it leads somewhere.  Last night, my family played Singo at Crafter’s Brew, and one of the songs on my sheet (which never got played, though the title was there) was Oye Como Va.  Naturally, this is the song stuck in my head this morning, even though I haven’t actually heard the song in years.   I’m a little amazed that I still remember what that means without even thinking, since I haven’t really had the opportunity to really use the Spanish I learned in jr. high and high school for decades.

Thank you, Kathleen Alexander, for taking a moment to encourage me.  In 9th grade Spanish, you asked if Spanish was spoken in my home.  I said no — none of my family speaks anything but English.  You then said you thought they did, because my accent was so authentic.  That compliment has stayed with me for 40 years, and encouraged me to try harder.  Your encouragement for me to apply for an exchange program profoundly changed my life.

I wasn’t the best student, but I still remember teachers who took a moment to praise my work.  I was always surprised to hear it, because I was driven pretty hard at home and “you can do better” was what I expected to hear.  Mrs. Irwin at Linden praised my spelling and reading, so I tried even harder.   Mrs. Kidd at Robertsville complimented my writing, so I wrote more.

My senior year of high school, I already had enough English credits to graduate, so I took Creative Writing just because I thought it sounded interesting.  Ruth Cates Baird took me aside after the first week and told me I didn’t belong in that class, and suggested that I sign up for college English at Roane State.  It was too late to enroll, so she simply told me that she would give me different assignments and grade me as a college professor would.  Ms. Baird, I finished off my first quarter Freshman English at UT (Creative Writing) with a 100% average, thanks to you.

There are many more; if I tried to list them all, I would inevitably wake up in the middle of the night with the terrible realization that I’d forgotten someone.

The takeaway is this: any small praise for a student’s work, particularly the student who isn’t always at the top of the class, may very well stick with them and motivate them to try harder.  Thank you for all that you do, with too many requirements, too much paperwork, too little pay and too little praise for your accomplishments.  I hope this year is an excellent year.

What’s Wrong?

The Chattanooga Times Free Press has an article about a mini-summit on education, following low test scores on last year’s botched TN Ready tests.

The first thing we must ask ourselves is, have we tried to do too much?  In recent years, the Legislature has continued to add mandatory requirements.  Financial literacy, the citizenship test, additional PE, additional unstructured physical activity (recess), an additional year of math in high school along with three required lab sciences… and those are just from the last decade!

Don’t get me wrong: all of those things are useful, to varying degrees.  But with each thing you add and don’t take something else away, you detract from the time available to teach the core curriculum.  With that, learning suffers.

No matter what we do, each of us has to prioritize.  You can do a small number of things well, or you can attempt a large number of things, where something is going to suffer.  Either it won’t get done, or the quality isn’t up to par.

I want our students to be able to read, write, calculate, and think critically.  If they can do those things, the rest will follow.



Adapting to Change

The following was submitted to local papers yesterday.

I can’t function without my… (fill in the blank)!

Cell phone?  I survived into my early thirties without one, and never even realized it was a problem.  I admit that now, having carried one for a number of years, it’s terribly disconcerting to be without.  My parents can easily recall a time when most families had only one car – a concept that is unthinkable to most of us today.  But faced with challenges, we adapt.  We can, we must, and we will.

Families living in most communities outside Oak Ridge are accustomed to not having school bus service within a mile or mile and a half of the school, so our current turmoil seems like no big deal to them.  To us though, having to suddenly live without something we’ve always had (except for a brief period several years ago) feels like the end of life as we know it.

With the advent of social media, the volume of discontent and velocity of misinformation has grown exponentially.  It is most unfortunate that a member of City Council chose to announce in Monday’s meeting that the School Board intended to cut transportation no matter how much money the City provided; that is incorrect, as evidenced by the fact that there was no reduction in transportation services in our budget passed on May 27 (first reading) and May 29 (second reading).

Perhaps if Ms. Baughn, or any member of City Council, had accepted our invitation to attend any of the schools’ budget meetings, this error might have been avoided.

Information was provided to the City – and to the public – prior to passage of the budget indicating what levels of funding were needed to provide various services in the school budget, but all three options required some additional funding from the City.  The reason is that costs for things we must provide (electricity, water, insurance, books, teachers, etc.) rises faster than our funding from the State, Anderson and Roane Counties, and the City of Oak Ridge.  Furthermore, new requirements generally come with a price tag, while they seldom are accompanied by the necessary money to implement.

In recent days on Facebook (the modern-day equivalent of a public bathroom wall, as credibility goes), other wild rumors have been floated: that the schools just purchased new cars for two School Board members, that the transportation routes were deliberately drawn to impact certain individuals but not others, that our system is riddled with nepotism, and a host of other things.  None of these are true.

When the City declined to provide any increase in funding to the schools for the sixth consecutive year, drastic cuts had to be made.  The School Board voted on June 23, one week after the City’s final reading of their budget, to eliminate transportation service for everyone living within 1.5 miles of their school.  The transportation change was less than half of the total budget cuts, which also included textbooks, utilities, and administrative items.

The bus routes are created with a software package called VersaTrans, and we know from past experience that there will need to be some manual adjustment of routes or stops as more information becomes available.  Some, perhaps most, of those adjustments will occur after the start of the school year.

We know that this will cause inconvenience, even hardship, for some families.  However, this hardship is less harmful than other options that would negatively impact learning: larger class sizes, eliminating some courses, or failing to provide sufficient instructional staff to ensure that all children learn.  Our PTA/PTO organizations are already stepping up to help, compiling lists of parents who live near one another, volunteers who are willing to carpool or provide transportation, and more.

Your Board of Education is open to suggestions and willing to answer questions, but it’s best to reach us via phone or e-mail (both listed on the schools’ website, for all Board members).  We don’t all use social media, and even those who do cannot possibly see all questions in all groups.

Certainly, we would all prefer that we not have to reduce services to our families, but the School Board has no ability to raise revenue and is wholly dependent on other funding sources: the State, the City, and Anderson and Roane Counties.  When adequate funding is not provided, something must be cut.

We will survive this.  We will get to know our neighbors better, and learn to help one another get our children to school safely.  People in other communities already do so, and we will as well.

School Budget 101

Facebook is sort of a fun thing, but it’s also used by many as an information exchange.  That’s fine for some things — businesses in particular — but it’s sort of awkward as a mechanism for constituent response for elected officials… or anyone else asking a question with more than a 128 character answer.

I primarily use Facebook for leisure — keeping in touch with friends and family.  Occasionally I venture into one of the Oak Ridge groups, but it’s not something I monitor every day.  And I’m not about to start.

Today, a question was posed on FB about the current year’s school budget, specifically, about the dollar amount requested of City Council.  The full approved school budget is here, but folks unaccustomed to working with such a document often have questions.  It’s confusing at first — it took me a couple of years to get comfortable with it.

So, on to the question:

Jay Brandon The FY2015 proposed budget is requesting a total of $56,699,793. Page 9 of the budget shows the 2014 General Fund Balance (Budget) to be $51,659,006. However, page 125 shows the 2014 General Fund Balance (Budget) to be $48,300,318. If page 9 is correct, the Schools are requesting a $5,333,287 increase. If the numbers on page 125 are correct, then they are actually requesting an increase of $8,399,475.

First, the School Board is not a department of the City, but a separate elected entity with its own distinct powers determined by State law and City Charter.  The Board does not have to get permission for the overall budget amount; that is our duty, and ours alone.  We receive funding from the federal government (0.462% in the current year), the State (42%), Anderson and Roane Counties (27.7%), and the City of Oak Ridge (28.7%).

We do, each year, make a request of City Council for funds needed to fulfill our mission: to provide the best possible education for every child in Oak Ridge.  City Council is empowered to accept or reject our budget, having control over any increased City contributions to the schools budget, but has no authority over line-item expenditures or revenues beyond the City’s appropriation.

On p. 9 in the PDF (it’s p. 5 according to page numbers in the lower right corner), we show revenues of $51,659,006 for FY2014 — the current year.  That includes revenues not only from the Fed, State, and Local Governments, but also a significant transfer from our undesignated fund balance (kind of like our savings account/emergency fund, of which we’re required by the state to maintain at least 3% of our total budget).  Fund balance money can only be spent on certain things, like one-time expenses.  They can’t be used for salaries, and should not be used for recurring expenses.

The numbers on PDF p. 125 (print copy, p. E-8) refer to the revenue sources, not including any fund balance transfers.  That’s the difference.  We also had some smaller budget adjustments to include some grants we didn’t anticipate, but used to good effect.

In short, the only number that should be of concern in the current discussion about whether City Council should fund the School Board’s budget request is found on PDF p. 5 (print p. 1), line item 49810:  City General Fund Transfers.  That is the only number over which City Council has any control.

The School Board cannot dictate how many police officers we need, what kind of fire trucks to buy, or whether to spend red-light camera money on repainting crosswalks and migraine-inducing LED stop signs by the Marina.  Similarly, City Council cannot dictate how many teachers we hire, what we pay the Superintendent, or which textbooks we purchase.  We each have our jobs to do, and both sides have quite enough on our plates without meddling with the other’s business.

If it were up to me, I’d say put speed cameras in every school zone in the City and designate all of the revenue to the schools.   But I don’t have that authority, and I can live with that.

The question is, is it worth a sizeable tax increase to take our schools to the next level — way ahead of those around us — to attract the kind of residents who used to live here, and who could live here again?  That’s a shared goal between the City and the School Board; we need to attract more of the highly educated people who work here, to live here.  The STEM initiative and 1:1 computing is a big-time goal that I think would accomplish what both want.

Our tax rate in the 1980’s, before the DOE buy-out, was upwards of $4… and we had more of the folks we want to attract then, than we do now.  We had a heckuva lot more retail, too.  Just food for thought.


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.




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