Legislatorland this Week

How appropriate that the sun is shining this morning, after a a stormy first half of the week.

Yesterday, HB1849/*SB0872, a bill allowing elected superintendents (at the discretion of County Commission) failed in the House Education Committee on a 6-9 vote. For that, I am thankful.

Superintendents (now called Directors of Schools, but old habits die hard) have a difficult job — one of managing large budgets, personnel, and implementing policy set by an elected board. It’s decidedly a job for a professional, and the type of expertise needed by a school system varies depending on its immediate and long-term goals.

The qualities needed to be elected to public office may or may not be consistent with the qualities needed in a professional director of schools. Worse, most school systems in this state would have a rather limited pool to choose from simply due to population limitations. When Oak Ridge chose a new Director of Schools several years ago, the Board conducted a national search with the assistance of the Tennessee School Boards Association for recruiting and screening.

The present system demands a largely cooperative relationship between the Director and the elected Board of Education, with the former being accountable to the latter. The Board is accountable to the electorate, with the front-line educators insulated from the politics of it all. As they should be.

Voting against HB1849 in committee yesterday were John Hood, Mark Maddox, Joe Towns, Ulysses Jones, Larry Turner, Tommie Brown, Gerald McCormick, Dolores Gresham, and Speaker Jimmy Naifeh — I’ll be writing each of them today to thank them.

Voting for the bill were Les Winningham, Harry Brooks, Richard Montgomery, Beth Harwell, John Mark Windle, and Eric Swafford. These are not bad people; indeed, at least two (that I know of) have served as school superintendents before. They were, however, pressured by their respective county commissions, and voted wrongly on this one.

* * * BEP/Fiscal Capacity
On Tuesday, the News Sentinel reported that House sponsors of an effort to change the BEP’s fiscal capacity formula to a flawed model favoring the four largest metro school systems abandoned the cause for this year, with plans going forward for a study this summer to achieve a consensus on funding changes.

Change is desperately needed, but not the kind where money is just moved around from one system to another. If we are to improve statewide, then the State must commit to pay for those things it requires, while giving local governments the option to provide more if they so choose.

I’ll take a temporary win over a permanent loss, but we have to make sure that cities like Oak Ridge, Kingsport, Athens, Cleveland, Tullahoma, Clinton, and Murfreesboro have a seat at the table when changes are discussed.

Having dogged this issue for almost two years now, I’ll say it again: we can’t give up until this proposal is dead, buried, with grass growing on top.

Back to Schools

The budget was adopted last night, and now goes to City Council, whom, I’m certain will not be pleased. Up until late Thursday evening, I still believed that it must be possible to meet the 4.25% growth guideline without major damage to our academic programs… but after making my way through two pages of proposed reductions (that’s two pages of nine-point type) that wouldn’t work, I felt like a complete failure.

Having rested a bit since then and looked at it with fresh eyes and mind, I’ve concluded that my only failure was in not recognizing what we were up against from the beginning. To meet the City’s guideline, we would have to not teach something that we now do. Like driver’s ed. To me, it’s unacceptable to go backwards.

Now, we go to City Council and make our case… hoping against hope that there’s an unknown revenue source, or that maybe the City would settle for providing the same pay increase to its employees (3%) that the teachers are budgeted to receive.

* * *
The Oak Ridger has taken a calm and very circumspect view of the recent staff change at Oak Ridge High School in today’s editorial; I think there’s some real truth in the title of the piece.

Without a doubt, it’s one of the most challenging — and most high profile — principalships in the state. Add in the construction, and you have a challenge in a muddy fishbowl: everyone’s watching, and everything around you is a noisy mess.

Come to think of it, there could be an idea for another one of those sick, twisted reality shows.

Thankfully, Chuck Carringer has proven capable of managing in the interim (if we don’t work the poor man to death, who already had his hands full with two jobs — now three), the school year is almost over, and we have time to settle down a bit and move forward in an appropriate fashion.

Is it Friday yet?

County Primary Roundup

AT wrote yesterday, “keep posting about politics.”

As an admitted political junkie, it’s easy to forget that a lot of people don’t keep up with the daily goings-on in local government. Most people, myself included, can only drink from the fire hose of one layer at a time (local, state, or federal), and federal seems to attract the most interest.

Oddly enough, local has the most impact on our daily lives.

Early voting for the Anderson County primaries continues through Thursday (April 27) at 6 p.m.; election day is May 2. For the County Mayor’s race, the primary will decide the next holder of that office, since there is no Democratic challenger. You can find the ballot HERE.

Party affiliation aside, there are only two contested races in the D-primary (Sheriff and Juvenile Court Judge), with five on the R-side (DA, County Mayor, Trustee, Juvenile Court Judge, and Sheriff).

In my opinion, it’s as important to vote in the primary as in the general, because if only the hard-core party affiliates vote, we end up with only the extremes to choose from in the end. That’s not good.

I’ll confine my comments to the Republican primary for now.

For County Mayor: I think we would be better served by a change. Jack Copeland works well with other government officials (including the other cities in Anderson County), has management experience, and a plan. Thus, he got my vote.

For Trustee: John Stair. He has the accounting background, and certainly has the right connections to continue operating with flawless efficiency, while also advocating modernization. Political insiders recognize the style of his chief opponent’s campaign as being typical of that conducted by Energy Media — otherwise known as Alan Beauchamp (Probation Director, Director of Buildings & Grounds, Grants Manager, and who knows how many other payroll codes in Anderson County).

For Juvenile Court Judge: April Meldrum. While I admit that I don’t know a lot about the other candidates, I did meet with April several months ago, and was impressed. That said, Pat Hess did a good job with my little burglar a few months ago (tough enough to get his attention, but not wrecking his life), so had I voted in the other primary, I would have voted for her.

Just for the sake of challenge, do some homework on the Sheriff’s race, and let me know what you think.

Time for Change

You’ll not catch me wishing summer away, especially not today, as I’ve just enjoyed grilling a homegrown ribeye and eating on the deck. It’s not too warm, not too cold, and there aren’t any mosquitoes; last night’s storms washed all the pollen out of the air, leaving it crystal clear with the sharp contrast of the sun’s waning rays and shadows against the leaves.

But September 1 can’t come soon enough in some Anderson County political offices.

WATE reports on yet another multiple-DUI offender who struck a sweetheart plea bargain deal: 5-time loser Alvin Lacy will spend only two months in jail, followed by 11 months “supervised probation.” The blame for the plethora of plea bargains falls squarely on the District Attorney, who hasn’t personally prosecuted a case in more than a decade (maybe almost two).

Note: in this jurisdiction, “supervised probation” is a joke. The Director of Probation has dodged allegations of impropriety with female prisoners, evaded any consequences for irregularities in the County Audit, and has routinely taken checks for payment of probation fees — checks that, of course, bounced.

Murderers have gone free, and drug dealers are routinely back on the streets in less time than it takes for the arresting officer to complete the paperwork.

At the close of the August election, we will have a new District Attorney. The only question is, will the voters remember the deplorable record held by the current officeholder, and deny him the judgeship that he seeks instead. Although he’s running for Chancellor — a court that typically hears matters of equity and family law — the challenger candidate says he’ll hear criminal cases as well.

Just what we DON’T need.

Night on the Town

Whomever said “there’s nothing to do in Oak Ridge” sure missed out this weekend… the annual Irish celebration put on by Peggy and Tom Hanrahan, of the Realty Center, was surely the place to be.

Irish balladeer Pat Kane was once again on hand to perform, and put on a trememdous show (as always). Unable to consider waiting a year to hear it again, I ordered a CD this morning — Haymaker’s Jig #2 is the sort of music that reinvigorates my spirit after a hard week like this past one has been.

The beer was very green; an outsider’s observation of the happy folk might have led to the conclusion that we had been grazing…

On Tap for Saturday and Sunday:
Friday night certainly kicked off the weekend on the right foot, but there’s more — the Dogwood Regatta is taking place today and tomorrow at the Marina. With crews in town from as far off as Ontario (Canada, not California), the finish on Sunday will feature a cardboard regatta, testing the skills of amateur boat-builders using — you guessed it — cardboard boats.

This, I’ll have to see for myself.

For Nancy:
Yesterday, you noted that the recent emergence of corruption and bribery among public officials makes you want to move to Bermuda; I theorized that while we do have problems, it’s probably better here than elsewhere in the world. Although the Middle East is probably not the most effective example, Michael Totten’s most recent entry on his Iraq visit is worth a read. We’re lucky to be here. Had I been born in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, I’d have been executed long ago.

Rambling Friday

I’ve neglected you lately, and it wears on my conscience. But I really have been overwhelmed.

First, the prom dress: 21 total yards of fabric (heavy satin, very light and silky lining, and some kind of filmy over-drape with all the manageability of a spiderweb) have occupied most of my kitchen table for the last couple of weeks, until I procured a dressmaker’s dummy to be sure that I got the fit right during the times that my daughter was not available — mostly middle-of-the-night sewing sessions.

Although it doesn’t show in this small picture, there are dozens of tiny crystals decorating the sides of the split in the spiderweb-stuff, which have to be ironed on one-by-one, as the spiderweb stuff melts at the temperature required for the crystals to stick.

The next time-killer has been the school budget: starting out roughly $1.1 million more than the City had planned to allocate, even with a generous 4.5% increase over last year’s funding, we’ve spent a painful couple of weeks trying to find any area of possible savings or downsizing that won’t lower the quality of our children’s education. There were cuts made that are actual cuts — but the burden will fall primarily on the administrators in increased workload and less travel.

We haven’t made final approval yet, but after last night’s meeting, I don’t anticipate many changes before submitting the request to City Council. We were down to cutting items that saved as little as $600, in an overall $47.8 million dollar budget.

Three of my kids have been on out-of-town school trips: to Chattanooga for the TSA State Conference, Orlando with the ORHS Band, and Williamsburg for the ORHS Orchestra.
Daughter #2 surprised us all by bringing home a first-place trophy in Engineering Design at the TSA Conference, so she’s headed for Dallas in July for Nationals.

Look at the kids in this picture — they’re mostly ordinary kids, not the National Merit Scholars Oak Ridge is so well known for — but they achieve incredible things on their own time through a club that simply provides them with the avenue to explore their own potential, and teachers who stay late in the afternoon and on weekends to answer questions and teach incidental things (like physics, as applied in calculating wind resistance for the Engineering Design award).

And, there’s been a little bit of distraction this week due to staff shuffling… contrary to rumor and the media’s supposition, the reassignment of the ORHS Principal had nothing whatsoever to do with the school newspaper controversy last Fall.

Off to dabble in one of the many County races for a bit, but I’ll expand on some of these topics later. I promise not to leave you waiting for so long this time.

May 30 Tax Vote Likely

It appears that Anderson County Schools Superintendent-turned-County Commissioner, V.L. Stonecipher, has finally succeeded in gathering enough valid signatures to force a sales tax referendum on elevating the sales tax countywide.

My objection to this effort is not raising the sales tax; obviously, citizens have the right to do that by referendum. My objection is that all it really does is to reallocate tax revenue from four incorporated cities to the County.

Two years ago when Oak Ridge voters overwhelmingly approved a sales tax referendum to fund the note on reconstructing Oak Ridge High School, there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” with county officials to not supersede the tax rate for a period of five years.

Doing so at this point puts a serious dent in the financing plan for the high school renovations, which have already been contracted and begun.

How can these four cities — indisputably, the economic engines of the County — make up the difference in their budgets if the referendum (in which none of their residents can vote) should pass?

  1. property tax increases
  2. annexation.

The referendum is being sold to County voters as “it won’t really affect the taxes you pay, since you shop in the cities anyway; it’s just taking money from them and keeping it for yourself.”

Maybe County Commission needs to re-think their position on allowing Clinton to annex the property near I-75, which would generate a lot of new sales and property tax revenue for the County. Maybe they need to think about growing the pie, instead of eating someone else’s piece.

Child Predator Arrested Again

When former Centertown teacher Pamela Rogers, 28, got out of jail for molesting a 13-year old student, it took less than a month for her to violate the terms of her 7-year probation… contacting the victim, establishing a website where she posted pictures of herself in a bikini, linked to the victim’s sister’s website, and posted messages to the victim by cryptically addressing him via the number of his basketball jersey. [see the News-Sentinel story]

Anyone — man or woman — who could claim to “fall in love with” (initiate sex with) a child of 13 needs to be put away in a very safe place for a very long time.

Granted, she doesn’t look 28, and it’s easy to see why young boys would be beside themselves for her attention.

If anything, that places so much more responsibility upon her as a teacher to conduct herself as a professional — to be sensitive to the influence she holds, and to be an advocate and protector for her students as they struggle toward developmental and emotional maturity.

Evidently, an extraordinarily light sentence was imposed because the victim’s family did not wish for him to testify.

Sometimes, the law just doesn’t make sense.

Election Time!

Local politics is hopping all around East Tennessee these days. I can’t say that I remember a more crowded, contested ballot in Anderson County. Early voting begins tomorrow: study the candidates (hint: pick up a copy of last Thursday’s Oak Ridge Observer for the candidate section), thoughtfully consider your options, and VOTE.

The folks in the Roane County portion of Oak Ridge (just one precinct, but the largest in the county, I think) have 30 candidates to choose from in August– including a new County Mayor, with the retirement of Ken Yager. Roane Co. doesn’t vote in May, though, as there is no primary. All county offices are nonpartisan in Roane, as they are in most of the state.

After much thought, I tend to think that’s a better way of conducting local business.

Knox County’s in for quite a spell too, with 12 members of County Commission ineligible due to the State Supreme Court’s recent term limits ruling. Brian’s blog has the complete run-down on those races, including the write-in options.

Anderson County’s election has the potential to bring real change. Watch the County Mayor’s race… it will be interesting. Two Commission districts in Oak Ridge are destined for new faces, with the retirement of two Commissioners. Robin Biloski is seeking a seat in the 8th District (Emory Valley, Glenwood, and Hendrix Creek); as the lead vote-getter in the crowded Charter Commission race three years ago, I’d look for her to do well.

Another race of interest will be the matchup of Chancellor Bill Lantrip and the current District Attorney. I have definite opinions on that one… but that’s a topic for another day.

At the very least, we’re guaranteed a new District Attorney… yet another day’s page-turner.

Remember: early voting starts tomorrow. The sun will be shining… no excuses.

The Schools Budget Difficulty

People do wonder why balancing a school system budget is trying, even in a generous, supportive city like Oak Ridge.

There are several reasons, but one that affects nearly every school system in the state is that teachers are funded at the system level (according to the number of students), but the state-mandated class sizes must be applied at the school level. So, if we’re one student over the class-size limits at school A, and ten under at school B, we have to hire an extra teacher for school A (who is not funded by the state). If we don’t, there’s a $50,000 fine. The alternative would be to shuffle students between schools every year. I can just imagine how thrilled parents would be with that idea… not to mention that it would be very disruptive to instruction.

The problem is not unique to Oak Ridge; every school system has the same difficulty unless they only have one school containing each grade level.

In our case, the State funds 259 teachers (actually, 65% of the BEP salary for 259 teachers); however, we have 336.65 teachers, most of whom are required to meet the class size mandate. That difference of 77.65 teachers amounts to $10,792,417 that has to be funded exclusively from local sources.

Adding insult to injury are a 20% increase in the cost of electricity; 45% increase in the cost of natural gas to heat the schools; and a whopping 62% increase in the cost of diesel fuel and gasoline.

The key difference between the school system and every other business or homeowner is that we are wholly dependent on revenues allocated by others, and obligated to fund things that are not paid for by those creating the mandates.

Bless the citizens of this city, who do all that they do voluntarily. You just don’t know what a difference you make.