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.



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

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.


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.




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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