June 2006

Politics: Local Judicial Elections

For some weeks now, anyone who reads the dead tree edition of local papers has seen ads for a candidate running on the premise of “doubling days for criminal trials.”

Funny thing, for one who seems to have avoided putting criminals on trial at all from his current position as District Attorney.

I’ve seen it as a campaign gimmick for the most part, but some have asked, “why not?”

If you’re wondering, the answers to that question and more are posted here — in particular, click the Information link for a good civics lesson on the history of courts in Anderson County, why some things are done the way they are, and the difference between the different kinds of courts.

Most of us who have had little experience beyond a speeding ticket could learn something here. I did.

And yes, this is a candidate that I will vote for and support. Bill Lantrip is a class act, and one that we would do well to keep.

Media Role in Society’s Propriety

This is a tough one to write… but it has to be said.

Yesterday’s Oak Ridger featured a story of a young marine preparing to leave for Iraq, just days after the birth of his first child. Today’s News-Sentinel carries a front-page, above the fold photo of the same young marine, with his newborn son and girlfriend.

I deeply, sincerely hope that this young man comes home safely, and soon.

I also wish that, for the sake of this new baby, that he would marry the baby’s mother before he goes — to give the child the benefit of his name, to provide some security for the baby’s future should the peril of war take its toll.

Perhaps I am wrong, but my instinct is to chastise both newspapers for glorifying this little family that seems to have forgotten something terribly important: the paperwork. Marriage, commitment, and security. How many teenagers read these two papers and came away with the only tragedy is that the Marine has been called to war so early in fatherhood?

I desperately hope that the young mother pictured never has to tell her son that his father gave his life for his country… but couldn’t give his name for his child.

Other people’s lives are none of my business, but the media has a role in upholding the standards of society. Do we have any left?

Calling Council’s Hand

At the second reading of the City of Oak Ridge Budget on May 22, Council members stated that the School Board didn’t participate in their budget planning process, and that they didn’t know until the school budget was submitted on April 25 that there was a difference between the schools’ request and Council’s planned allocation.

Privately, some have said they didn’t know about the shortfall until reading it in the newspaper.

The March 20 Minutes (page 4) of City Council indicate that they did have forewarning:

Ms. Karen Splinter, Director of Business and Support Services for Oak Ridge Schools, spoke on behalf of the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Tom Bailey, who was unable to be present at this meeting. Her comments were:

“Dr. Bailey wanted to express his thanks to the City Manager and to City Council for allowing he and I to sit in on the Budget and Finance meetings that have occurred over the past several
months. He also wanted you to recall that we have always said that we would do our best to stay within the model that the City proposes. Over the past few years, in order to stay in that model, we have moved large sums of our nonrecurring fund balance to balance the budget and have said that at some point it will run out. We are very close at this point, after the FY 07 budget, for that to happen. In order to stay within the guidelines of the model that is currently being proposed, the Schools will have to diminish programs for ’07. Over the past few years, working within the guidelines of the model has caused us to develop budgets that are basically maintenance in nature with no embellishments or additions or improvements to programs. This year and in the years to follow, this model will not even allow us to have a maintenance budget. [emphasis added]

We have included all potential revenues known to date. We are using a figure given to us by the State for the BEP (Basic Education Program) funding; however, the qualification was “it could be off by $2 million so discount it by 95%.” So that gives you an idea of the uncertainty of the BEP funding. Of course, if it turned in our favor at a later date, that would be something where we
could adjust the budget. But the last word that I got is the official estimate will not be out until April, so it’s probably going to miss this whole budget cycle we are in.”

For the sake of clarity, a “maintenance budget” means keeping the programs we currently provide (which includes not only what we typically think of as maintenance — repairing and cleaning — but also everything else).

They did know in advance. I wish I could provide a link to minutes of the budget and tax committee meetings, but I haven’t been able to find any. Are there any? Note the first sentence of Karen Splinter’s quote:

Dr. Bailey wanted to express his thanks to the City Manager and to City Council for allowing he and I to sit in on the Budget and Finance meetings that have occurred over the past several months.

So, in addition to the status report on March 20, reference is made to their attendance at committee meetings in the preceding months. I attended at least one of those, cautioning that our state funding is in peril due to the efforts of the state’s largest school systems to have BEP funding reallocated in such a way that they would gain at the expense of smaller municipal school systems.

The budgets are set, with real cuts in services made by the school system in order to meet the Council’s allocation — set months in advance before all costs were fully known. It may not be fair, but as mortgage rates have risen, how many homeowners have had to allocate a larger share of their budget to the house payment? As fuel costs have risen, how many people have had to devote a larger share of the family budget to transportation?

Answer: all of us. It’s time to prioritize before we lose the house. Losing bus service was as bad a cut as I can remember in my lifetime acquaintance with the Oak Ridge Schools.

Teach Tennessee

This morning’s News Sentinel reports that new teachers credentialed under a new program to recruit mid-career professionals into the classroom are being graded. The results should show whether the accelerated licensure has indeed produced effective teachers for the critical shortage areas of science, math, and foreign language.

It will be interesting to see the results.

I’ve maintained for several years that good teachers are born with something that most of us don’t have… but there’s no question that effective teaching practices can also be taught. If those effective practices can be taught in a short period of time to someone who posesses that innate talent, already has a degree, as well as years of experience in a particular subject, it seems likely that they would make a great teacher.

What better math teacher than one who has already applied those skills to designing bridges that don’t collapse, or a physics teacher who spent a few years in a nuclear facility? Imagine the answer to the smart-aleck kid who complains, “when am I ever going to use that?”

I remember having that very thought when faced with learning calculus, only to realize much later that it’s very useful in calculating how much an extra $500 paid toward the principal near the beginning of a 15-year mortgage is really worth.

I do hope that the results come in positive; there aren’t that many people who are willing to pursue a degree in math, sciences, or even foreign language and then settle for the constraints of a teacher’s salary. But there are some who have already earned a good living for some number of years, and are willing to take a pay cut to pursue a dream, have summers off, or simply a second career.

The story behind the start of Teach Tennessee is that Governor Bredesen (with a degree in physics from Harvard) asked Commissioner of Education Lana Seivers if he could teach physics in a Tennessee high school after he retired as governor. Her reply was, “no, sir; you’re not qualified.”

I guess the cool thing about being a governor is you can change little things like that.

Walking to School

Atomic Tumor raises questions about the change in transportation service for Oak Ridge Schools for next year, so I’ll post what I know. Bus transportation will not be provided for students who live within one mile of their school. I don’t know yet if that is as the crow flies, or distance by road.

How many kids are affected? 734, at current enrollment, by school as follows:

  • Robertsville Middle: 128
  • Jefferson Middle: 141
  • Glenwood Elementary: 77
  • Linden Elementary: 102
  • Willowbrook Elementary: 136
  • Woodland Elementary: 130

Some at Oak Ridge High School will be affected, but I don’t have that figure — bus ridership at the high school is a moving target, changing daily with the weather and gas prices. However, it’s well known that high school students are least likely to ride the “cheese wagon” (as they call it) having the option of driving, biking, or hitching rides with friends. Even 25 years ago, riding the bus was tantamount to wearing a “kick me” sign, a fact which has not changed.

The immediate dollar value of this change is $279,408, plus a reduction of $575,000 in future capital outlay for the replacement of school buses. Obviously, we’ll eliminate the oldest buses first, to delay the time before we have to buy new ones, as the State requires that we replace buses after 15 years.

NEXT UP: While nothing was done at the May 30 budget meeting, look for discussion of change in the near future in the area of bus maintenance. The City’s 129% “overhead charge” on parts and labor, plus a “10% administrative fee,” is far more than I would be willing to pay for service on my own vehicle, so I’m even less willing to pay it using the schools’ money. Cleveland City Schools realized a substantial savings when they quit paying the City of Cleveland and hired their own mechanic… staff are now investigating whether we could save by doing the same.

Watch for the City to then decide to charge us for use of the garage at the City Service Center, but I’m not sure how they could get away with that, since part of the justification for building it was that the school system would have shared use of the garage. This year, the transportation department took several buses to a commerical garage for an oil change because the City had a backlog and couldn’t get to them over a school break; the overall cost was lower, even though the buses had to be driven to Knoxville for the service (increasing fuel and payroll cost for the effort).

Anyone know a good diesel mechanic in Oak Ridge?

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