September 2006

Netmom’s Visual Dictionary: Ambition

Ambition, definedSomebody needs a new chainsaw, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking it the old fashioned way. These chilly mornings have thoughts of firewood dancing in his head.

Good thing he’s got an anniversary present on the way.

Bush vs. Bush

The New York Times has an excellent article on the Bush brothers’ differing approaches to school improvement. W, as President, ushered in a sweeping change in 2001 known as “No Child Left Behind,” which mandates that all students will demonstrate proficiency by 2014. Failure to meet milestones along the way leads to progressively more punitive sanctions, which can lead to the replacement of a school’s entire staff, or even to takeover of the school by the state.

Jeb, as Governor of Florida, also implemented standards-based reform in his state, but with different methods and incentives: rather than tracking a school’s progress from year to year, it tracks the progress of individual students. Rather than punishment, it offers financial rewards to the schools that excel. Improvement is rewarded, even if it misses the target mark in NCLB.

At last night’s Oak Ridge school board meeting, we reviewed our students’ test scores — and they’re very good. We obviously have a school system to be proud of. However, we also heard from Mark Diemer, who teaches special ed at the elementary level; while he has no problem pushing his students to excel, while he is able to clearly document that they are progressing and learning, knowing that if too many of his students don’t meet the proficiency standard, his whole school could be punished, is extremely stressful.

Mark is a great teacher; year after year he brings his students to their personal best. Who could ask any more?

Remember, we’re talking about children with learning disabilities — some of them very significant. IDEA forced the mainstreaming of students who, due to birth defects or brain damage, have little realistic hope of ever performing at the level of their peers. Holding them to the same standards as everyone else is sort of like telling me (at 5’4″) to go out and compete in the NBA… just because Earl Boykins (5’5″) did it doesn’t mean we all can. i sure can’t.

I support accountability in the public schools based on criterion-referenced testing, and I believe that NCLB has caused us to use testing as a tool for improvement by studying the disaggregated data to identify gaps in learning. It’s working, and improvment is evident. Still, we will never attain 100% perfection when our obligation is to accept all students. In the case of graduation rate standards, the ruling that all students must graduate within four years actually pits the school’s best interest against the student’s best interest in situations where a student would benefit by repeating a grade.
NCLB is up for reauthorization next year; it’s time to make some changes.

BEP Review, 9/28/06

At today’s BEP Review Committee meeting in Nashville, James W. Guthrie, Director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University, gave his presentation on an alternate method of determining fiscal capacity.

Last year, the Legislature charged the BEP Review Committee with the task of developing a “consensus recommendation” for moving to a system-level fiscal capacity formula.  Last year proved conclusively that there was not, and would never be, a consensus for the TACIR prototype system-level formula developed by Harry Green, since it caused a majority of Tennessee school systems to lose money while enriching the state’s four largest cities.

Guthrie’s proposal uses only property tax base (value of taxable property) and sales volume to calculate fiscal capacity; each is multiplied by a “computational” tax rate (in theory, something like the state average or mean, I guess) to determine a school district’s ability to pay.  There would be no sharing between Counties and municipal or special school districts therein, and the City or SSD residents would pay taxes only for the school district in which they live.  It’s clean, it’s understandable, and transparent.

In other words, no black magic box filled with hexes to twist and distort statistical data that at most three people in the state truly understand; there’s room for a lot of mischief in the nine-variable “least squares multiple linear regression model” that TACIR proposed, and last year’s BEP Review Committee set forth as one of its objectives that the formula should be straightforward, understandable, and explainable.

There are no numbers yet, but a draft should be prepared in advance of the next meeting on Oct. 11th.  Other factors such as at-risk students and English Language Learners can be incorporated into the BEP formula itself, although there may have to be some tweaking of Guthrie’s proposal to adjust for municipal systems that are only K-6 and such.

This one looks as though it could be fair and equitable.  The question is, can the state add enough money that funding for every child in every  district is adequate?  It must be.  The answer to our problem is not to simply rearrange who gets a bigger piece of the pie at someone else’s expense — there must be a minimum standard of adequacy.

We will all be better off to resolve this problem.

Watch this space…

I spent the better part of the day commuting to and from Nashville for the BEP Review Committee meeting, where their wireless network was only half working. Although I could gain access to the network, it wasn’t assigning DNS servers, so I couldn’t reach the internet.

There is a school board meeting tonight, but I’ll have a full report on the BEP Review by tomorrow. Actual numbers for the Vanderbilt version of fiscal capacity won’t be available until close to Oct. 11, but what they’ve proposed appears to be a definite improvement over the TACIR prototype. At least now, the committee agrees that there must be a consensus recommendation, which precludes any plan that takes funding from some systems to redistribute to others.

Thoughts on Tax Incentives

Tax abatements are the topic of conversations all over town lately, following a close vote for what most people feel is a bad decision — to grant a million-dollar tax abatement to a health club that is already constructed, open, and operating. While a welcome addition to Oak Ridge, that particular business does not contribute much in the way of sales taxes (dues being non-taxable), does not meet an unfilled need, and the jobs created are not in the salary class that particularly merits the incentive.

AnotherThing2 wrote last night about County displeasure surrounding Oak Ridge abatements, particularly a different situation where the City agreed to an in-lieu-of-tax arrangement for a new restaurant on the river. In this case, the developer will pay the full amount of the property taxes, but that sum will be dedicated to waterfront improvements — which benefit him, through creating more traffic to the waterfront, but also benefits rowing activities, which brings a substantial sum in the way of sales tax revenues from visitors who travel to attend these events. It seems likely to spur additional growth in that area, generating new property and sales tax receipts as well.

This arrangement does not upset me, since there’s a clear path to reinvesting in an activity that will increase tax revenues in the long run — not just for Oak Ridge, but also for Anderson County. Especially since the County superseded the sales tax rate last May, it seems that Anderson County would be interested in anything that bolsters sales tax collections, whether in Oak Ridge, Clinton, or anywhere else within the County borders.

Regarding the health club abatement, I can certainly appreciate the concern and resentment. It takes money from the County coffers, just like it does from Oak Ridge, and doesn’t appear to bring anything that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred without the incentive. At the same time, it is possible to structure an incentive policy which works to attract businesses that would benefit both the City and the County — our needs are not mutually exclusive!

It seems that there might be something to be gained from the IDB members speaking with County Commission — or a subset thereof — and discussing the philosophy and interpretation of tax abatements, criteria, and goals.

The only responsible way to deal in tax incentives is to identify very clear goals: bringing businesses that would meet a defined need, whether jobs in a specified field or minimum salary level, retail that meets a demand otherwise filled by shoppers leaving the county, or one that serves to trigger additional development or revenue. In all cases, the IDB should document the expected return on investment.

Providing information on the County’s ROI (separate from the City’s) to County Commission would not entail much (if any) additional effort, but might very well generate a heightened spirit of cooperation between the two. Going through the exercise would also give the IDB an extra “gut check” as to whether a particular abatement was indeed a good investment.

If the deal is not good for the County, it’s probably not good for the City. The “we should be as generous as possible” line quoted from one IDB member was ludicrous; the IDB is not Santa Claus, but is supposed to be more like a savvy stockbroker — one who handles the public’s money with a clear goal of responsible investment and return.

IDB to Reconsider Abatement

Stan Mitchell tipped me off to a blurb buried in the Sentinel’s business section today: the Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board has scheduled a special meeting on October 3 to reconsider the million-dollar tax abatement granted last week to National Fitness Center, which opened in July.

In a few short weeks, the new gym has already driven an across-the-street competitor out of business. There are no sales taxes collected on fitness club memberships, and the jobs created are not of the wage structure to warrant such municipal largesse. In short, what’s the incentive to give the incentive?

The move to reconsider came when Board members realized that, contrary to the information presented at the time of the vote, National Fitness representatives not only knew about the abatement process ahead of time, but had been urged repeatedly to do so before they even broke ground on the new facility.

IDB Board members are listed below, should you wish to contact them:

William J. Biloski 33 Palisades Parkway

Stephen T. Grady 110 Connors Drive

Douglas B. Janney, Jr. 118 Everest Circle

Alan L. Liby 100 Amanda Place

John D. McKittrick 345 Louisiana Avenue

H. D. Osucha 249 Gum Hollow Road

William M. “Bill” Pardue 222 Connors Circle

Harold E. Trapp 102 Concord Road

David E. Wilson 1079 W. Outer Drive

Tax abatement incentives should be used to businesses or industries targeted to fill very specific needs: defined (high-wage) employment sectors, or retail businesses that meet an unfilled need — thereby keeping more sales tax dollars in our city that would otherwise go to larger shopping areas in Knoxville or online.

I’m delighted to have National Fitness in Oak Ridge, and I hope that they prosper. However, they don’t seem to fit the criteria for such a huge tax break.

Three Bends

As has been the topic of discussion for years, escalated in recent months following Council’s denial of needed funds for the Oak Ridge School system, this city is in need of new revenue in order to adequately fund the level of services desired.

At last night’s City Council meeting, two Council members (Abbatiello and Mosby) changed their votes on zoning for a new Holiday Inn Express, having voted in favor of the project on first reading. Beehan and Golden maintained their opposition, as evidenced by their “no” votes on first reading last month. Given the neighborhood opposition, it was a controversial subject.

Just last week, the Industrial Development Board voted for a 10-year, million-dollar tax abatement for National Fitness Center, a new health club that is already open, operating, and has put one existing health club (Paragon) out of business. Certainly, tax abatements can be used to lure targeted industries that bring employment, or retail businesses that increase the City’s sales tax collections, but the new health club appears to be a zero-sum gain. In Tennessee, no sales taxes are collected on gym memberships, and the jobs brought by National Fitness are not exactly of the caliber to merit a million-dollar lure. Had the IDB said no, would they have closed their doors and left town?

Oak Ridge needs to increase revenues to sustain City services, including traditions such as education, dating back to the City’s earliest years, as well as more recent developments like the rowing course that now attracts regattas of national prominence (for which $100,000 was approved in the Council meeting, following the zoning vote).

We cannot continue the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed without growth. Yet, with every proposal that would bring some measure of added self-sufficiency (translation: not extorting payments from DOE, but generating revenue based on added value), there is a contingent of opposition.

Last night’s Oak Ridger carried an old story with a fresh pulse: development of a portion of the Three Bends region along Melton Hill Lake, designated just under six years ago in a surprise move as a “conservation and wildlife management area” by then-Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson.

It caught the City off guard because parcels 14 (Gallaher Bend) and 15 (Solway Bend) had been designated as self-sufficency parcels by DOE on maps dating back to the 1980’s, when annual assistance payments were ended under the Atomic Energy Communities Act.

Without question, the miles of gently rolling lakefront — once farmland, before the Manhattan Project and later, Oak Ridge — would constitute some of the most valuable residential real estate in the region, if available.  A few dozen million-dollar lakefront homes would surely boost the tax base sufficiently to fund the school sytem, police and fire protection, and keep the library open without pitting one against the other, as occurred this year.

Despite the fact that just one of the three bends would bring enormous change to the City’s economic health, while leaving miles and miles of undisturbed lakefront and forest for conservation and research purposes, expect a fight.

“This land belongs to everyone,” they’ll say, “it’s wrong to put it in private hands.”  But remember, just 65 years ago these lands were in private hands — taken by federal agents from families with names like Freels and Gallaher for the wartime project.  If the land is no longer essential to national defense, it should be returned to private hands through the city that has long endured a federal presence with minimal compenation for the land it occupies.

Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation (AFORR, in this acronym-addicted city) notified Mayor David Bradshaw by letter last June that they had convened a meeting on the subject of the Three Bends’ future; the Mayor responded with a bit of a (well-deserved) smackdown of the group’s proceeding without City input or notice.

Last May, Council showed themselves unwilling to raise taxes to sustain services; in this case, education was the ox that was gored.  Last night, four members (a majority) showed themselves unwilling to grow the tax base in the face of NIMBY opposition.

Will they stand up to those who oppose development of what would be, without question, the most valuable residential property in the City?  With more than enough land to satisfy the needs of both development and conservation, will they stand firm in advocating for the best interest of this City four years from now, when the conservation agreement expires?

Or, will they simply point to the strategic plan and refuse to maintain those things that Oak Ridgers have treasured for so many years?

Four years will be too long to wait for the Oak Ridge Schools, but if we as a City do not plan for the future, it may be too late for the services you hold dear as well.

Woodland Hotel

Disclaimer: AT’s post was a tangent to this one, where he notes that he does not have a pony in this race.  However, it seemed like a good springboard.

Much has been written about the proposed new hotel on Illinois Avenue, bordering the Woodland neighborhood. Some Woodland residents have been vocal in their opposition, but the concept is not without support, either.

AtomicTumor writes,

I fail to see why it’d benefit anybody but Patel and business interests to put the thing there. You’d think there’d be some kinda incentive that could be offered to the Woodland denizens.

I heard Shailesh Patel speak to a small group on this subject a couple of weeks ago, and he’s actually devoting considerable effort to canvassing the neighborhood, trying to determine what he could do to make the project not just more palatable, but more appealing to the neighbors. It was my impression that he is quite sincere in going beyond what is needed for City approval, and actually is concerned about addressing the neighborhood concerns.

Does Oak Ridge need another hotel? My first thought is, he’s the businessman, and it’s his money at risk. He’s been around here for quite a long time, and he’s too sharp to make a foolish gamble. He’s done his market research, and I don’t think he’d take that kind of chance unless the data backed up his decision.

I doubt that all of our hotels are full all of the time, but there are certainly occasions when they are, notably during rowing events. Our local industries are also ramping up several projects that bring people in on business. Folks that stay in our hotels contribute to sales tax collections not just through their room tax, but also from eating out at every meal. Yet, it doesn’t seem like they would cost us much in the way of City services such as fire, police, utilities infrastructure and schools.

I would be much more suspicious of some out-of-towner like Arnsdorff planning this venture, but Patel lives here, works here, and has kids in school here. It’s worth carefully weighing the consideration he’s put into both the hotel and the neighborhood impact before lining up against him.

Truthfully, would this smallish hotel have more negative impact than the large apartment complex across the street?

Although the location and traffic patterns wouldn’t be nearly as favorable in the empty field across from my neighborhood, I would not object to it going there. Especially if it also attracted a little grocery store and other needed commercial business to the west end.

The new Food City is only about a mile further from my house, but the five traffic lights in between double the travel time. Business can make good neighbors, and good neighborhoods.

Protecting the Innocent

In the ASS&S post (which was about a group that is opposed to public education), AnotherAtomicCitizen comments about homeschooling being a means to protect children from sexual predators.

While Tennessee (and Oak Ridge Schools) go to great lengths to screen teachers, there’s no denying that every once in a while, the worst happens.  Of course, the same thing could be said of stepparents, but most would not suggest that the solution is for single parents to never remarry.  Likewise, most parents do not believe that sending their child to school will result in exposure to sexual predators.

Folks, sick people do exist.  The best protection is to know the people with whom your children associate, to know your children well, and to cultivate open communication with them.  As we have seen from explosive media stories over the past few years (magnified by television and the internet), the predator can be a priest, a teacher, the school crossing guard, babysitter, or a relative.

When children are uncomfortable, it’s essential that they can be open and honest with their parent or parents: the discomfort may be a dislike of math, just a normal interpersonal conflict, or it could be something much more serious.  Listen to your kids, but follow up.

Children are not always truthful — “I don’t have any homework” often means “I don’t want to do my homework” and “my teacher doesn’t like me” sometimes means “my teacher gave me a bad grade because I didn’t do the homework I told you I didn’t have.”

“I don’t like my teacher” (or coach/babysitter/neighbor/etc.) could mean any number of different things, including some things that a parent never wants to hear.  But we must have the kind of dialogue with our children that enables us to get to the truth… because there are those very rare instances where the truth demands immediate action to protect them from harm.

Would mass homeschooling or private schooling result in fewer instances of abuse?  I doubt it.  To the contrary, it’s often at school that abuse in the home is revealed.  Sometimes, those allegations are unfounded, but at other times, intervention may save the child from death or ruin.

As AAC noted, there have been prior instances of middle school teachers found guilty.  William Marcus Kendall was fired, arrested, and convicted of sexual battery, statutory rape, and attempted rape, and sentenced to prison.  Since that time, Tennessee law has changed so that a teacher who is suspended or fired due to crimes of this nature are no longer able to simply move to another school district, as Kendall did — the state is notified, so that the teaching license is not transferrable to another district.

At the same time, it’s essential that we allow the investigation to be completed.  If the allegations end up being false, tremendous damage has already been done to the accused.

In the world of public schools, there are numerous safeguards to protect children, but parents should also be aware that similar precautions do not exist in all circumstances.  Summer jobs, camp, and other activities that students engage in may hold dangers unknown… so know your kids.  Talk to them, and hear what they’re telling you.

Their lives depend on it.

They’re ASS&S!

There is actually an organization with that name (though I don’t think they use the acronym): the Alliance for Separation of School & State.  The homepage of their website solicits support for their public proclamation:

“I proclaim publicly that I favor ending
government involvement in education.”

That sounds very much like “abolish all public schools.”

If you click on State Rankings at the top, it shows how many people from each state have signed on to their petition.  Then, if you click Tennessee, it shows you exactly who these 595 people are (with location and some with comments, ranging from their religious affiliation, profession, or number of children).

In yesterday’s Oak Ridge Observer (I’ll link it when goes online, but until then, get your own) Stan Mitchell did a straightforward interview with both candidates for State Representative in our district.  Both listed education as a priority — Jim Hackworth ranking it as his top priority.  David Massengill said he supports more local control, which sounds good.

Question is, just how local?  Local as in local school system?  It doesn’t appear to be so.  Go on down the Tennessee ASS&S list — it’s in alphabetical order — and guess whose name is on there?  David Massengill.  Of Clinton.  Candidate for State Rep.

Massengill has signed a statement that “I proclaim publicly that I favor ending
government involvement in education.” 

I fully support the right of parents to select the best and most appropriate education for their child or children — not just public schools, but also including home schooling (meeting the State’s modest qualifications and criteria), private, or parochial schools.

Despite that view, I steadfastly maintain that quality public schools are necessary to ensure our future.  Every child must have an opportunity to learn — if they do not, then our immediate future as a nation is in grave peril.

ASS&S indeed.

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