August 2006

Xenophobia on the Rise

Whether a recent thread on the Oak Ridger’s message forum, or an article last week in the Rocky Mountain News, it appears that many in this country have come down with a serious, irrational fear of people they perceive to be “foreigners.”

From the forum, I had the distinct feeling that some Oak Ridgers think that anyone who speaks with a Spanish accent, or works in a Mexican/Chinese restaurant, is an illegal immigrant. Jacket, SingingAtom, and ORHS73 represented the voices of reason: the reality is that, at least in this area, we have no reason to believe that “most” foreign-born people are illegals. Actually, we have every reason to believe that “most” are not, and those who do not have the proper documentation are very likely working and putting money into our local economy.

The situation in Colorado is even more distressing:

A seventh-grade geography teacher at Carmody Middle School in Lakewood was suspended with pay Wednesday after he refused to take down foreign flags displayed in his classroom.

A geography teacher isn’t allowed to display flags of countries his or her students are studying?? I think we were tested on it. Our own National Laboratory — a US Government facility — has a huge wall displaying the flags of scores of countries represented in their employee and user population.

Someone needs to do a little thinking about what has happened in the past, following the rise of nationalism in various countries: think Germany, Japan, etc…

No, I’m not comparing Bush to Hitler. I don’t think this one is his fault; I think it’s our own, and each of us who doesn’t stand up to it is guilty of allowing our country to head down a very risky path with a predictable outcome.

Technical difficulty

I apologize for the funky appearance this morning; I’ve messed something up, and don’t yet understand how WordPress organizes information well enough to isolate the problem. Stay tuned — I’m working on it.

Update: It seems I know just enough about WordPress to be incredibly dangerous.  Unable to customize the Kubrick theme to my liking, I switched to a new one — but ended up having to reinstall all the WordPress files as well.  However, I will not give up.

BEP Review Meeting Today

The BEP Review Committee is a group established by the Legislature to annually review the state’s education funding mechanism — the BEP.  Membership consists of the Chairs of the House and Senate Education Committees, representatives of the State Board of Education, the Comptroller’s office, Tennessee School Boards Association, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, a representative of the “small schools” coalition, along with superintendents and finance directors of various school systems.

At the end of the Legislative session, the General Assembly directed the BEP Review Committee to develop a “consensus recommendation” on moving to a system-level fiscal capacity model — one that would evaluate ability to pay based on the school district’s, rather than the whole county’s economic data.

The largest part of today’s meeting was devoted to a presentation by Leonard Bradley, a Vanderbilt professor and a member of the Peabody Center for Education Policy.  The Peabody Center became involved at the invitation of the State Board of Education, following considerable dissent last year over the proposed system-level formula developed by TACIR.  One of the agreed-upon goals of the BEP Review Committee is that the formula should be as simple as possible, defensible, and easy to explain; Bradley stated that they recognized the most immediate problem was to examine issues lurking within the current BEP.

The haste, of course, is that the BEP Review Committee was clearly directed by the Legislature to develop a consensus recommendation for change by Nov. 1, the date of the committee’s annual report.  One of the things I found disturbing is that several months have elapsed without further study or attempt at consensus, with a recommendation due in two months.  Bradley was not optimistic about being able to even gather the necessary data by that time, although he did acknowledge that they had ascertained that the necessary data does exist within state government.

That data is primarily comprised of property valuation by school system, although sales tax data may also be available.  The short term goal seemed to be simply using property values and sales volumes to establish a district’s ability to pay, and assigning state funding commensurate with that ability.
Richard Kitzmiller of Kingsport pointed out that if this sytem is used, it would be necessary to change state law regarding shared taxes (all county residents pay some portion of their property taxes dedicated to education operations, including city residents, all of whom pay county taxes, but only a portion of which is returned to their city school system).  If the County were no longer required to share, City residents would not have to pay the portion of County taxes dedicated to education.  The City could then raise property taxes by the amount needed to make up the difference — likely, a smaller tax rate than what was removed by the County, as property values in the Cities tend to be higher.

The same would be true for not sharing sales taxes — therefore, Oak Ridge would get back the half-cent superseded by the County in May.

Nothing was decided at today’s meeting, except that three more meetings will be needed before the Nov. 1 deadline.  At present, they are scheduled to be on Sept. 28, Oct. 11, and Oct. 23.  At the first of those, the Peabody Center should have a basic idea of what the new way to determine fiscal capacity should be.

I confess that they seemed to me to be speaking in code, but at the break, Dr. Kitzmiller (the Kingsport superintendent, who is a member of the committee and an advocate for municipal school systems) told me that it’s his opinion that this would be a positive change.  We would certainly receive less State funding, since all the cities are more affluent than their respective counties, but without having the “shared” taxes, we would have more revenue available for the same or less burden upon the taxpayer.

A reporter from Metro Pulse was there, but few other local school board members besides Dan DiGregorio and myself.  Oak Ridge lobbyist Bill Nolan was also present, and I don’t think it escaped the committee’s notice that Oak Ridge is both interested and watching.  But, with the real work ahead, it looks like I’m going to be headed back with some frequency this Fall.

Financial Report

Included in the materials for last night’s school board meeting was the usual month-end financial statement for the school system, except this was was for the month ending June 30, which is also the end of the fiscal year.

Budgeting is partly an art form; there are always unknowns, such as our approval last night for adding a half-time teacher assistant at the high school to serve one student. Federal funding for such extraordinary IDEA expenses is based on the student count at the end of last year, but this student just moved in. So, we bear the extra cost for the rest of the year, in spite of the fact that it’s a federally-mandated expense. We also added a kindergarten teacher at Woodland, due to the arrival of 23 more students than we expected.
Feel free to download the financial report and study it. The first half of the first page is the school system’s revenues; you can see what we budgeted to receive, what we actually received, the percentage of the budgeted amount, and the variance from the budgeted amount. Under revenues, it’s better to see numbers not in parenthesis… the parenthesis means we got that much less than expected.

Pay attention to percentages that are far above or below 100%. For example, line item 47143 — revenue for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) closed out the year at 56.2%. Not only is the federal government not paying it’s fair share, but we only received a little more than half of what was expected — the unfair share.

The bottom half of the first page is expenditures. Here, it’s much better to see a number in parenthesis at the end… that means we spent less than we budgeted. All in all, we received $394,649 more than anticipated (0.95%), and spent $857,242 less than budgeted (2.1%), so we ended with a small amount that goes into the fund balance.

We’ll need it; we always do, because our budget is inadequate to really put the money into maintenance and repair that we ought to, so when something breaks, the fund balance is where it comes from.

As these are public records, feel free to download or print to your heart’s content.

Get up and Move!

Moving over from Blogger to WordPress was more fear of the unknown and fragmented time to work on it than anything, but yesterday, I settled on a proper incentive to make myself finish.

“Doug” sat on my desk all afternoon as a prize waiting to be had when I finish. One pint (plus .9oz) of dark ruby traditional ale, named for the powerful knight Sir James Douglas — also known as the Black Douglas of Scotland — known for the fact that he carried the heart of Robert the Bruce into battle on the Crusades.

Now that’s a dedicated friend: one who will cut out your heart and take it with him as he continues your battle.

I moved him to the refridgerator, because I have technically completed the move. I haven’t opened him yet because I’m still not quite satisfied with the aesthetics of the site, but it’s not even 9 a.m., so I really don’t need to be knocking off pints at this time of day anyway.

I’ll finish a bit of work, dig into the CSS and PHP to see if I can’t make it look and work the way I think it should, and maybe by late afternoon I’ll earn my reward.

Nothing like a little motivation.

BEP Review: to bat, or to battle?

The BEP Review Committee meets on Wednesday morning in Nashville; I’ll be there. Although I’m not on the committee and have no direct vote, sometimes just being there can make a difference. Like any other public body, knowing that someone is interested and watching can impact what they say and do.

The BEP is Tennessee’s mechanism for directing State funding to public school systems. The “equalization formula” referenced in the link above is actually the Fiscal Capacity Formula, developed by Harry Green of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR). Simply put, it’s Tennessee’s formula for providing more state funding to school systems with less local resources, and less to those with more local resources. At this time, fiscal capacity is measured at the County level, which means that all the school systems in Anderson County (Anderson County, Clinton, and Oak Ridge) receive the same number of dollars per pupil from the State.

For a couple of years now, there’s been a push to change the formula so that the larger cities get a bigger share. They do receive less state funding per pupil under the formula, because they have much larger tax bases. In particular, they have very large sales tax bases funded in significant part by residents of surrounding areas, so that’s why they receive less. At the same time, those large cities argue that they have a harder-to-educate population (higher percentages of poor and minority students, as well as those who don’t speak English well); they feel that changing to a system-level fiscal capacity formula would be better, since all the big cities have consolidated school systems, whereas many of the municipal school systems are just outside their borders, and therefore compete for teachers, etc.

Two years ago, the Legislature directed the BEP Review Committee to move toward a “system level fiscal capacity model,” and they attempted to do so last year. The problem is that the new formula developed by TACIR (see David v. Goliath from last February) would have caused great harm to more than half the school systems in the state. Bills to move immediately to the system-level model were defeated in the Legislature last Spring, but the BEP reauthorization resolutions passed late in the year (HR0286/SR0120) directs the BEP Review Committee to develop a consensus recommendation on a system level fiscal capacity model.

Unfortunately, consensus will be difficult — maybe impossible — to achieve if the method is to simply rearrange distribution of already inadequate funding.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the first agenda item pertains to things like “phase-in” and “hold harmless” — in other words, a painstaking death to the losers in the TACIR prototype system-level fiscal capacity formula.

The second item will be a report from the Peabody Center for Education Policy, with an alternative system-level reform model (short-term objective) as well as a “21st Century Education Finance System” (long-term objective). This item is key — has someone come up with a better, more fair system-level formula?

There’s no way to know, except to go and listen to the presentation firsthand. So I shall. And no, fraud-and-waste watchdogs, your tax dollars are not paying for the trip… I am.

There’s been considerable local focus over the City’s decision to not fund the requested amount for Oak Ridge Schools in this year’s budget, which led to painful cuts — the most obvious being a decrease in bus service. However, the City Manager, Vice-Mayor Tom Beehan, and the City’s lobbyist, Bill Nolan, have worked closely with me (and our Superintendent, and the rest of the Board) over the past two years to monitor the State’s actions and proposals to prevent passage of reforms that would be harmful to our school system through reduced or limited state funding.

Be very clear: although there was and is disagreement over the City’s budget allocation this year, we are on the same team.

Look for a review of this meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 30. I hope I have good news.

Judging the Judge

The corruption saga of Roane County’s Judge Thomas Alva Austin continues this morning in two News-Sentinel pieces: one paints a tragic picture of a man distraught by his wife’s extramarital lesbian affair; the second reveals a coarse and corrupt parasite, extorting financial and personal gains from the public he was paid to serve.

The defense, led by Greg Isaacs, is pleading for leniency based upon the personal hardship he faced, which they claim drove him to reckless ruin.

The prosecution, led by US Attorney Charles Atchley, is pushing for a heftier sentence:

“This case represents an almost incomprehensible breach of the public trust”
“He is corrupt to his core”

Audio recordings of Austin’s own words support the US Attorney’s contention that a tougher sentence is warranted.

Austin on sexual harassment:

“See, back when I first started, you didn’t have to worry about that. They didn’t have no court judiciary and all that (expletive). I’ve granted girls divorces in the morning and (expletive) them that afternoon.”

Austin on financial kickbacks:

“Well, you need two books. What you don’t report, you don’t need to put in the bank.”

The two men who ultimately reported Austin to the FBI were a juvenile court employee tapped by Austin to head a driving school for motor vehicle offenders, and the probation chief. The video and audio recordings are damning.

The whole situation does illuminate the potential for corruption within law enforcement and the judicial system. Where a judge has the power to require persons before his court to participate in “fee for service” activities — whether driving school, parenting classes, or probation — there exists the necessity to keep a close eye on the money trail. Especially when the people in charge of those fee-for-service activities are handpicked by the judge who refers “customers.”

Properly conducted, these services provide value to the public… except when the goal is personal and/or financial gratification at the public’s expense. It’s worth thinking about the details of this particular corruption scheme, now exposed, and looking for similarities that may exist closer to home.

Pigskin Playtime!

This year’s Clinton-Oak Ridge matchup was a far better football game than we’ve seen for several years. Although Oak Ridge prevailed 35-9, Clinton is not a team to be taken lightly.

They’re bigger. They capitalize on any mistake by the opposing team. They can run, and they can tackle. The stadium was standing room only until the last three minutes of the game, following Oak Ridge’s final score.

Clinton narrowly missed a touchdown at the end of the first half that would have put them in the lead, thanks to Oak Ridge’s having scored a 2-point touchback for them in the beginning. Had they closed the first half in the lead, it might have been a different ball game in the second half.

On the way home, I was surprised to hear that Maryville beat Alcoa, given that Alcoa now has Gary Rankin, formerly of state powerhouse Riverdale. Enjoy it now though, as I expect that after a couple of years of building that team, Alcoa’s going to be fearsome.

Still, the Wildcats showed a few good tricks of their own; Connor Gulmire has quite an arm. And he’s fast. With some hard work and support from the fans, we could have a really good season ahead.

I love football!

FCC in a Red Cape

A ZDNet news flash came across a couple of days ago stating that, although an FCC fee on digital subscriber lines (DSL) has been eliminated, neither Bellsouth nor Verizon DSL customers will see a discount.

No big surprise for Bellsouth customers… once there’s an add-on fee, it never goes away even when it goes away.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reports that the FCC has opened a formal inquiry:

Federal regulators have prepared formal inquiries asking Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp., for more information about their decision to keep money high-speed Internet customers would have otherwise gotten back following a government decision that broadband subscribers no longer have to pay into a federal subsidy program.

The letters, which sources said could be sent as early as today, are the first step toward a formal Federal Communications Commission investigation. The inquiry is particularly unwelcome for BellSouth, whose $67 billion acquisition by AT&T Inc. is still pending before the agency. It’s somewhat unlikely the issue would have any significant impact on the merger, which is still being reviewed by staff. But FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was “very upset” by Verizon and BellSouth’s decision to keep the money, an FCC official said.

“The commission takes its obligation to protect consumers very seriously,” said FCC spokesman David Fiske. “Consumers must be provided with clear and non-misleading information so they make accurately access the services for which they are being charged and the costs associated with those services.”

It’s easy to get frustrated with the government, but I’m sure glad someone’s following up on this one. It’s about time.

At Least be Rational

The announcement of the FDA’s decision that the “morning after pill,” now called Plan B, will be available to adults without a prescription has been in the news for several days. This morning’s article in the News Sentinel states the opposition as:

Opponents believe making the pills more available could increase promiscuity and spur their use by sexual predators.

Given the price tag of $25-$40, I think not. Even if it were $5, it’s neither convenient enough, nor cost-effective enough, to become anyone’s first choice for a birth control method — aside from the fact that most of us are a little wary of gobbling up large doses of hormones, due to the inherent risks and inevitable side effects. It’s certainly not enough to change anyone’s morals or lead to dreaded promiscuity.

A similar argument has been used against the recently-approved vaccine for human papillomavirus, now known to be a leading cause of cervical cancer. From NewScientist:

In the US, for instance, religious groups are gearing up to oppose vaccination, despite a survey showing 80 per cent of parents favour vaccinating their daughters. “Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV,” says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

“Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex,” Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus.

The last sentence is important: it’s likely that the only young women who have ever heard of the virus, or its link to cancer, are those who have already visited a gynecologist or family planning clinic, or whose mothers are open, educated, and forthright enough to actually tell their daughters about it. Those mothers are also most likely to have counseled their children on the dangers of promiscuity (which includes a variety of other health, emotional, and social risks) as well as prevention of pregnancy and disease.

The second point is, of course, that the virus could be transmitted on a woman’s wedding night, neither spouse knowing that he carried it.

No mother wants her daughter to sleep around. But the danger of unexpected pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease is far, far worse than the moral or social effects of premarital sex.

The traditional barriers to premarital sex have been 1) pregnancy, 2) parents finding out, and more recently, disease. With options now to decrease (but not eliminate) the risks of pregnancy and disease, the key lies with parents: to instill in their daughters a sense of self esteem — low self esteem likely being the greatest factor in promiscuity among teenage girls — and to convey the benefits of reserving something very special for someone very special.

The latter won’t always work, so it’s important that girls and women also know how to protect their health and avoid unplanned pregnancy.

It’s time to put an end to the shrill voices that would risk women’s lives for one group’s version of morality.

Next »