May 2006

Rules of Governance

An interesting item was brought to my attention this evening by former School Board Chair Ann McNees, regarding City Council’s “Budget and Tax Committee:”

From the City Charter (2004 revision), Article II, Section 8, Council Rules — Transaction of Business:

The last sentence reads,

There shall be no standing committee of the council.

So, is the “budget and tax committee,” comprised of just three members appointed by either the Mayor or the Council, an illegal committee?

Strategic Plan

Having a strategic plan is a good thing, but failing to incorporate all priorities calls into question the viability of any such plan. I received by e-mail today a copy of Ron Darden’s recommendations to Council from the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS), and the last page is a cause for grave concern.

Recommendations:

1. Revise the property tax limitation goal that is directed at operating budgets already operating below the 25th percentile level for comparable cities and make the goal less ambiguous or delete the goal.

2. Develop a strategic planning process that involves the community on a regular basis.

3. Use a facilitator to guide the planning process, but do not substitute a facilitator for the planning process.

4. Identify the services that the city will provide and those that the city will not provide. Fund desirable services with available and anticipated revenues.

5. Review all operating departments to ensure that they are operating at the appropriate level of service and that they are operating efficiently and effectively.

6. Increase non- property tax revenue where possible.

7. If the city thinks that it is important to minimize the effect of the local property tax rate, consider limiting the annual school appropriation by some agreed upon percentage.

Summary

The city needs to develop an effective and continuous strategic planning process with goals that are clear, concise, and understood by the staff and citizens. The school system, one of the academically, very best in the state, requires substantial appropriations from the city’s general fund. This is the primary reason that the city’s property tax rate is above the 75th percentile level for comparable cities. When city operating departments are compared with comparable cities, less the education appropriation, they operate below the 25th percentile level for comparable cities. City services may suffer if the departmental budgets are reduced by 16% in meeting the stated strategic goal of limiting the property tax rate to the 75th percentile level of comparable cities. The city would be wise to explore other alternatives in the strategic planning process.

If I’m reading this right, Darden recommends limiting school appropriations longer-term to some preconceived percentage, because it would harm other city services to limit their budgets. Does he — or more importantly, do Council members — believe that limiting appropriations to education will not similarly cause harm to that sector of City services?

This recommendation seems to point in the dangerous direction of pitting one department (the schools) against all others… which I truly believe is a bad idea. Yet, my first reaction upon reading it was this:

How many people move here because our Parks & Recreation Department is so great?
How many people move here because of our top-notch fire department? (that’s not sarcasm… they really are terriffic.)
How many move here because of our police department?

Add them all up, and ask if the total is more than the number who move here for our school system. I really don’t think so. It is an unrealistic goal that all of our city services — including schools — should be of a higher standard than our so-called “comparable cities” (Maryville, Bristol, Morristown, Smyrna, and Cookeville)?

Quality isn’t cheap, but it is often the best value.

Good as New


Aahhh… nothing like a few days in the woods to restore the soul.

This morning, while Hubby, Delta, and Dog were still sleeping, I hopped on my bike and rode down to the dam to catch the morning rays in the water. This shot is looking back toward the lake through the downhill side of the dam — I think this one was designed as an overflow spout, but it wasn’t anywhere near overflow stage.

Still, it was pretty.

To the right is a view from the top of the dam — yes, the one I was told not to climb and did anyway (twice). The chute that I climbed didn’t have any water falling so the stone steps were dry, and all but one were low enough that I could just pull myself up the next one. There was one where I had to grip the rocks on the side and sort of shinny up the side wall, but it was no big deal. Really. And the view was worth it.

All is right with the world again.


Coming home, I had my faithful companion drooling over my shoulder most of the way (as seen through the rearview mirror here), but that’s okay too.

Some days, there’s nothing like a friend who loves you no matter how worthless you are to the rest of the world. That’s Dog. However, after a few days of renewal, now I feel like I can take on the world again with a rational perspective.

Let me know before Tuesday evening what makes the most sense to cut from the school budget. I have my own thoughts, of course, but input is always welcome and considered.

Outposting

Sunday: child Delta confirmed; child Alpha’s convocation ceremony attended.
Monday: City Council meeting… undesirable result.
Thursday: Child Alpha graduated; chaperoned graduation celebration from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Friday. Lots of Starbucks consumed.
Friday: Finished a little work that had lingered; packed everyone for various destinations over the weekend, hitched up the little camper and left for the woods.

It is in the woods that I can get everything back in the proper balance. I’ve slept about twice as much as usual, ridden my bike around wherever I need to go (the pool, mostly, but also to the little bridge with a dam underneath). I’ve cooked on an open wood fire, read some more of my first Sharyn McCrumb novel (A Rosewood Casket), and just sat and listened to the woodpecker that seems to hang out overhead.

This morning, I climbed the stone dam (across, I think, the Obed river), much to Hubby’s chagrin… he doesn’t like heights. I do, and I’ve climbed like a monkey since I was a child. So I pretended not to hear the cries of “don’t do that” and did anyway.

Youngest child Delta, the only one to accompany us on this trip, informed me later that he said I was going to die if I fell. I told her that’s why I didn’t fall.

We biked back to camp and I took yet another luxurious nap while he took Dog on another several-mile walk. Dog likes that. Delta biked to the pool.

As a thundercloud threatened, I gave in to Hubby’s jonesing for a hotspot and we headed for the DQ at exit 320, where we now sit. But, that peanut buster parfait is making me sleepy… it may be time to go back and throw a few logs on the fire, then take another nap as the logs burn down to perfect cooking coals.

Nothing tastes so good as whatever is cooked on an open fire in the woods. Tonight’s fare will be kielbasa with potatoes and onions, with slabs of fresh tomato and cottage cheese on the side. Dessert: s’more s’mores.

Already, I think that my sanity is returning. I can be nice again. I can think clearly, make sound decisions, and not bite people’s heads off at the slightest offense.

Although challenges remain upon my return, I will be equal to them. Have a great Sunday.

Graduation=Celebration!

Fifteen seconds this evening wiped out a month of exhaustion, frustration, and anything else negative that may have happened in the last month… or the last three years.

This evening, I handed my eldest child her diploma.

I didn’t cry, but it was close. She’s worked so hard, climbing from the lowest math and reading classes in early elementary school, to knocking out AP exams in AP Calculus, Physics C, and Chemistry this year. Oh, and lest I forget, she earned a nice little scholarship from the UT College of Engineering.

All of last year, she arrived at school an hour early to soak up whatever extra physics she could from Peggy Bertrand (one of ORHS’s very gifted teachers); most of this year, she arrived by 5:30 to get in some extra calculus with Ms. Hillis (another great one) and then additional physics — her favorite subject.

I’m very proud of her, but I’m sure you’ve gathered that already.


And now, true live journaling from the now-famous Graduation Celebration! About 85% of the graduating class is here — safe, busy, and enjoying every last minute.

From line dancing, sumo wrestling, twister on a giant inflated mat, dance dance revolution, the graduate store, the thank-you note room, the buffet… there’s so much to do, and happy kids everywhere.

Earlier, each studied the sharp Chevy Blazer to be given away at 6 a.m. to the lucky one who can come closest to guessing the number of balloons stuffed inside. From some who studiously calculated the internal area of the vehicle and the average volume of balloons, to random guesses, each has a shot at the grand prize.

Watch more more a little after 6 a.m., and I’ll let you know who drives away with it, thanks to a gallon or so of Starbucks coffee (donated, of course, like everything else here).

Thanks to Karen Bridgeman and the many people who started this event ten years ago, to all the businesses and people who contributed money, gifts, prizes, and time to throw a grand community party for our graduates.

This is the best city on earth.

6:02 a.m. update:
Mark Cardinal won the car, guessing the exact number of balloons inside and being the random winner among the 10 envelopes distributed to the 10 closest guessers. Congratulations!

Aftermath

Beginning in the lobby of the municipal building after Council’s budget vote Monday night, everywhere I go, people are talking about recruiting candidates for City Council. On Tuesday, I heard it at two different awards ceremonies at my kids’ school (parents and teachers), and from folks whose kids are long since grown and gone at a lunchtime meeting.

This morning, I heard the same thing at Rotary.

The seats that are up for election next June are those held by Abbatiello, Bradshaw, and Dunlap. I’ve heard that Bradshaw isn’t planning to run again, but I haven’t heard it from him, so take it for what it’s worth — not much. I’ve also heard that Abbatiello has changed his mind (having said before that he would not run again, and apparently now deciding that he will). Ditto the disclaimer.

But, rather than talk about changing people just now, I’d rather give some thought to changing a process: specifically, the City’s budget process.

Having been through (several times) the sometimes tedious exercise of going through the school system budget line by line, in a public, televised meeting, I know it’s a lot of work. I also know that it gives each school board member a much better understanding of exactly where the resources are allocated, and why some expenses rise at a higher rate than others. It also makes for a much more open and transparent process for the public, which is good. It gives us a chance to ask questions, and for the public to hear the answers to these questions.

City Council, in recent years, has delegated the process to a committee of three (Abbatiello, Mosby, and Golden). The deliberations take place in a small training room, usually in daytime meetings that are inconvenient for public attendance, and are not televised. Thus, when the public readings arrive in May, the appearance is that it’s long since been settled.

Because all members of council bear responsibility for the budget and tax rate, I strongly believe that it would be a better process for all seven members to participate, and that there should be a televised work session where the entire budget is reviewed line by line. After all, they really only have two primary responsibilities: policy and finance.

Just like the school board.

In fairness, they do many things well: their packets are all online for citizen review, and the budgets are also posted on their website. The school board should do the same… it’s one of those things that have been put off for lack of funding for the appropriate software and technical staff, but it needs to happen.

The thing that they do not do well lies in delegating one of their greatest responsibilities to a small group, and that needs to change. Before next year. And if the citizens demand it, they can certainly make it happen in just one vote.

Perhaps another needed change is in the strategic plan, which excludes any meaningful mention of education, but has a definite (in this case, negative) impact on education through the fiancial model — but that’s another day’s topic.

Council Recap: the ugly truth

Fourteen speakers stood in line for their 3-minute turns at the microphone, each with different information but with a united message: fund the schools’ budget request.

  • Al Denny noted Council’s systematic denial of needed funding for education.
  • Ann McNees (former Board Chair) recalled how the schools were left out of the strategic planning process, particularly in the selection of benchmark cities (many of whom had no school systems, or only limited schools like K-6).
  • Bob Peelle said that residents seek stability in services — police, fire, and especially education. He closed by saying that Council is accountable for adequate school funding.
  • Brenda Fellner suggested that the City change its slogan from “achieving excellence” to “leading the way to mediocrity.”
  • Sam Bremen, James Sullivan, and Nathan Leiby (three of Oak Ridge’s dazzling rising stars) spoke to the advantages they have been granted at ORHS; Sam — one of the best young cellists ever to grace our stage — closed by saying,

Excellence is a legacy that you have the opportunity to extend, or to end.

  • Pat Postma, an ORHS graduate herself whose children also grew up in our system, noted that during her work with the education foundation she was struck by how much we have already lost, how behind we are in technology, and asked Council to simply extend the same effort as already put forth by the school board. She also said,

Whatever is it that you like about Oak Ridge is enhanced by improvements in education.

  • Elizabeth Peelle reinterated that the City’s allocation to the school system is steadily declining as a percentage of the overall general fund. While the actual dollars are increasing (except in FY04, where it remained the same as ’03), the City is limiting growth to the schools more so than to other areas.
  • Lisa Buckner pointed out that the schools are scarecely mentioned in the City’s strategic plan, although it is that very instrument that is held up as Council’s shield against criticism.
  • Susan Shor compared the tax increase required as equivalent to a stick of gum per day (Thom Mason, in a letter to the editor, defined it as one pizza per year).
  • Cathy Toth asked when the school system became the “red-headed stepchild” and declared as only a mother of middle-schoolers could: “don’t play one department against another!”

But it was Rick Morrow who most moved the audience, speaking not of the City’s best and brightest who garner the many accolades, scholarships, and prizes… but of a 22-year old young man who, suffering from dyslexia, never learned to read. In a lesser environment, Morrow said, such a child would have turned to drugs or crime in frustration, but in Oak Ridge, with excellent teachers who were passionately committed to this child’s success, he graduated with a real diploma and is now gainfully employed — a productive, self-supporting, taxpaying citizen in this community.

He closed, as several others had done, by saying that tonight’s vote would influence his vote in the next election.

The comments came to an end, and the Mayor called for any questions or discussion from Council. There were none… although each took a turn commenting on their support for education. It’s hard to believe it occurred this way; harder yet to sit there through a unanimous vote where the obvious appearance was that no effort was expended whatsoever.

I’m not sure how to make it happen, but I’d like to see someone run for Council next year with a commitment to make the City’s budget process more open, with a public (televised, in a regular meeting) line-by-line justification of each item in the budget.

That’s not micromanagement, it’s upholding the public trust.

On a closing note: the chair (Abbatiello) of the City Manager’s evaluation committee is also the chair of the (farce) budget & tax committee, therefore, the City Manager’s evaluation and salary are directly tied to performance standards set by the architect of this insidious, zero-growth plan. There’s something terribly wrong about that structure.

State Surplus

Talk abounds lately of the anticipated surplus in state revenue, along with various proposals for how to use it. From today’s Tennessean:

Items that lawmakers want to use the extra money for include: an incentive for moviemakers to come to Tennessee to film hit movies; a boost for higher education; more money for hospital trauma centers; and relief for state taxpayers.

Higher Education would certainly be one good suggestion, since that area has been notably neglected in the last few years. The shortfall has been made up, of course, by steep tuition hikes and things like larger classes or fewer course offerings.

I haven’t seen published reports of anyone in Nashville suggesting some relief to the state’s public school systems, other than a slight increase in BEP funding for at-risk and ESL students that was proposed long before any talk of a budget surplus. It would certainly please me to see someone stand up in the Legislature and make the case for directing the money toward covering State mandates that now fall more heavily than ever on local government.

Even if it were in the form of one-time assistance rather than a change in recurring allocations, it would help. Anything that is required by the State but paid for, in whole or in part, by local government is undisputedly a burden on the taxpayer — and any assistance given by the state lightens that burden on the local taxpayer.

Perhaps the only reason no one’s talking about it is that it would be too hard for the Legislature to claim credit, and most ordinary folks would see it as the efficiency of their local government instead.

More Letters to Council

As yesterday, I will post letters to Council from the parent listserv as they come in. This morning’s first edition is fairly strong:

I am also in complete agreement with the previous authors. Please do not make any cuts to the school budget, and make any increases necessary to maintain the high level of education the city of Oak Ridge has historically offered. I am in favor of increasing property taxes to achieve this goal. Besides, I’d hate to have to spend all of my time campaigning against the current council members during the next election
– soccer season is busy enough as it is.

Thanks,
DP

I feel certain there are more to come.

Don’t cut our children’s opportunities.

The fact that these cuts were seriously considered in the first place makes me ask myself who the heck is these people on the council really are?!? What makes this community a great place to raise a family are the people living here and our common values we place on things like diverse educational opportunities. Taking away those things will not be taken lightly and I believe is not an acceptable answer here in Oak Ridge. BECAUSE of the importance this town and it’s people have put on education in the past I believe we have the mental horsepower to come up with a much better answer than this.

We need to be looking for more opportunities to offer our children, not less.

B

To be fair, Council can only approve a budgeted amount for the schools, not what does or does not get cut if the sum is inadequate.

Ladies and Gentleman, Over the last few days I have been reading messages about the proposed budget cuts effecting school programs. I know first hand that being held to or restricted by a budget is very frustrating and looking for funds is a daunting task. There are multiple comments that have been sent your way that have mentioned young families moving into Oak Ridge due to the school system. It appears to me that the last thing the city wants to do is disappoint new residents or discourage any potential new residents from moving on in by cutting programs from the schools. Thinking long term the city needs to attract young families to maintain what our past and present citizens worked so hard for. The Oak Ridge school system is a bright jewel in the city’s crown. Please look for new revenue and/or substitutions. Thank you for your time,
CL

But, they do approve the budget amount, and the school board has tried to be open and forthright about the seriousness of the situation… it’s not just scare tactics.

Letters to Council

Following are notes that have been sent to City Council today (from a local listserv):

What do we need to do to fully fund the school budget? I am sure any parent of a school-age child would be willing to do what is necessary to anyprevent cuts to the budget.
We, as a community, can not afford to to jeopardize the education and future of our children.
V.
————————

I agree with V. We just need to make sure that the money is properly allocated. Where can we find a copy of the entire budget for review?
My husband and I moved to Oak Ridge for the great school system and the family community. We have one boy in 1st right now and 3 more coming up behind him. Oak Ridge schools need to be able to continue to attract great teachers like we have now.

A.
————————

My wife and I doubled our house payment when we moved from Roane County into Oak Ridge. We did this only because we value the Oak Ridge Schools. I especially value the arts and music. We have an outstanding strings program at fourth grade. We must not allow this to be cut. A few more cents in taxes is worth paying to preserve the excellence of our educational system. I sincerely hope our City Council does not allow our schools slip into mediocrity because of a few cents.

Sincerely,
D.
————————

Please vote to fully fund the school system’s proposed budget.
Oak Ridge’s housing prices are propped up by the dearly held belief of people who work in this area that the school system is far superior to any in the surrounding areas. Comparisons are sometimes made to Maryville being able to do as well with slightly less money. We are not competing with Maryville for residents. We are competing with Anderson and Knox County schools, especially Farragut. As long as people believe the school system here is vastly superior, they will be willing to pay a premium to live within our city’s boundaries. My husband and I made that choice when we moved here with two young daughters, as have so many others.
Again, please vote to fully fund the school system’s proposed budget. The programs that will be cut otherwise, especially fourth grade strings, are what make it special. A bit extra in property taxes is small price to pay.

Sincerely,
DC.
————————

I am also concerned about losing some of the wonderful programs the Oak Ridge schools have now. My oldest daughter is going into Fourth Grade next year and has already decided to be in the strings program. I have 3 younger children that will benefit from these programs and I am certainly willing to pay a few more cents in taxes to make sure these programs are still in place. One big reason we haven’t moved out of Oak Ridge is the schools and the wonderful and talented teachers at Linden.

M.
————————
My family also moved to Oak Ridge for the excellent schools. Personally I would much rather have property taxes increased in place of making the proposed cuts. I am particularly concerned about cutting bus service within 1 1/2 miles of the schools. The world we live in is not as safe as it was when I walked to school from the babysitters as a child. I would not allow my children to walk from their sitters house. I’m sure this would put a strain on other working parents. In addition, I am concerned about increased class sizes, the 4th grade strings program and Drivers Ed cuts.

Please cut new vehicles, some other program, or raise taxes instead of cutting the school budget.

AB.

———————

Dear City Council members,
It would be a travesty, in a community whose vote to increase taxes to support the construction of the new Oak Ridge High School, to build a beautiful building whose classes and programs have been decimated. For our children and for our community’s future, I ask you to fund the proposed school budget fully.
However, if after full consideration (and not just an automatic no-tax-increase stance), you decide not to fund the school budget fully, PLEASE keep the current strings program intact. It is an amazing and successful program, something that distinguishes Oak Ridge schools from others.
Thank you.
AW

Additional notes will be added as they arrive.

Next »