March 2007

County Commission & Crestpointe

County Commission’s vote not to kick in a little extra support to the Crestpointe project is sort of old news — almost two weeks old now — but Commissioner Whitey Hitchcock’s response in the form of a column yesterday is still fresh.

Whitey is one of my two County Commissioners, and the only one to vote against it.  Following is the note I sent to him today:

Dr. Hitchcock,

I was out of town for Spring Break when I read, with considerable dismay, that you were among the three Oak Ridge Commissioners who voted against redirecting roughly $97k/year in potential property taxes on the proposed Target site.  I agree that it is my own fault for not conveying my opinion to you in advance of the vote, as you were very responsive to me on the issue of the sessions court move.  Given your involvement in education, I mistakenly believed that my input was unnecessary – it seemed silly to think that you could be opposed, given the low risk and high potential benefit.

As a member of the Oak Ridge Board of Education who has been very involved in school finance issues for several years, I fully understand the breakdown in distribution of local tax dollars for education between the three school systems in the County; this project would be beneficial to all of us.  That the County schools receive roughly twice as much as Oak Ridge schools is simply a matter of pupil population.  But, following the County’s successful vote to supersede our sales tax rate last year, you must also know that Oak Ridge is in dire need of replacing not only the sales tax revenue lost to the County, but also the sales tax revenues that have declined in real dollars over the past several years.

I also know (as I strongly suspect that you do) that a Commission vote in favor of this tax redirection would have had absolutely no impact on whether or not the citizens would be able to vote on the matter in a referendum; that question is predicated solely upon the number of valid signatures on the petition.  In contrast, the Commission’s “no” vote does lessen the likelihood that the referendum will succeed.  Many people question why Oak Ridge should bear all of the risk, while the County recognizes the greatest benefit.

Should Commission have voted in favor of this proposal but the referendum be defeated in June, it would be a moot issue.  You would not have usurped any citizen’s choice in the matter.

We, in Oak Ridge, are more heavily reliant on property taxes to fund education (via allocations from the City General fund, as well as from Anderson County) than any other school system in the region.  For us to prosper in terms of retail development is of critical importance, but it also helps our counterparts in Clinton and Anderson County, whose schools are not suffering an embarrassment of riches, either.

I respectfully ask that you publicly commit to voting in favor of this request before the start of early voting on May 16, in order to mitigate the harm already caused.

Sincerely,

[Netmom],  District 6

Unlike Whitey, neither Shuey nor Creasey have given any public explanation that I know of.  If anyone’s heard from them, I’d love to hear their explanation.

BEP Arms Race

The five largest school systems in the state have joined forces to lobby (threaten, cajole, bribe, etc.) the State Legislature for a funding mechanism more favorable to the biggest metro areas.  From yesterday’s Commercial Appeal:

“State funding is not equitable to the larger school systems,” [Shelby Co. Superintendent Bobby] Webb said.

Because sizable school districts are left to depend more on local taxes and less on state money than smaller ones, he said the school board has joined ranks with five of the state’s largest school districts under the Coalition of Large School Systems (CLASS) to fight for better funding.

During the meeting, the board agreed to pay $25,000 to CLASS to hire a lobbyist.

Of course, the very reason that the biggest cities have to depend more on local taxes is because the structure of Tennessee’s funding for education is based so heavily upon the sales tax (where the cities collect sales taxes from surrounding areas with much less retail), and because their overall tax bases — property as well as sales — are so much larger in proportion to others.

That was the basis for the successful rural schools lawsuits that resulted in the creation the BEP (Basic Education Program) more than two decades ago, and the chancellor who declared the case closed just last year openly stated that major changes to the BEP would be grounds to reopen the suits.
Assuming that each of the five school systems (Knox Co., Hamilton Co., Metro Nashville, Memphis, and Shelby Co.) ponied up the same amount, they’ve got $125,000 for a lobbyist now.  My guess is that should buy some pretty hefty effort.

It’s very discouraging to me that they would spend their time and resources on fighting for a bigger share of a too-small pie, when the rest of us are working toward adequate funding for ALL Tennessee students.  Ending the squabbling over crumbs will probably require an approach such as proposed by Comptroller John Morgan, where the State takes on a larger share of education funding (while still allowing local augmentation, rather than requiring a local match for the bare minimum).

Wouldn’t it be far better to actually spend our resources on educating children than on decades-long legal battles?  The lawyers have enough already; the kids don’t.

School Budget Dates

Now that the School Board has received the Superintendent’s proposed budget, there are several meeting dates scheduled that may be of interest to those following the process. Also, this year, the proposed budget will be available online (I didn’t find it posted yet, but it will be), so that the public may follow along through the line-by-line reading and better understand what we’re working with.

This is, in my view, a tremendous improvement over years past.

Meeting Dates:

  • Thursday, April 5 — Board work session on the budget (SAB, 7 p.m.)
  • Monday, April 9 — Special Board Meeting, Public Hearing on the Budget (SAB, 7 p.m.)
  • Thursday, April 12 — Special Board Meeting, Adoption of the Budget (SAB, 7 p.m.)
  • Monday, April 30 — Schools Budget presented to City Council (Municipal Bldg., 7:30 p.m.)
  • Monday, May 7 — City Council Meeting — 1st Reading of the Budget (Municipal Bldg., 7:30 p.m.)
  • Monday, May 21 — City Council Meeting — 2nd Reading of the Budget (Municipal Bldg., 7:30 p.m.)

It’s likely that there may be an additional meeting or work session scheduled between April 5 and 12, if substantial changes are needed. Also, this schools budget is based upon the Governor’s proposed education funding measures; if those are not adopted, then the budget will have to be revised.

Now’s the time to speak up, Oak Ridge.  Waiting until Council’s second reading is too late.

Let the Battle Begin

Tonight the Oak Ridge Board of Education officially received the proposed budget from the Director of Schools, Tom Bailey.

He tried very hard to come as close as he could to staying within the City’s “financial model” — an increase in City funding of 4.1% — without devastating cuts.

It’s a bleak budget, with only a step increase and a 1% cost of living increase for teachers. Now tell me, have any of you experienced a mere 1% increase in the cost of living this year? Utilities alone trash that number. Throw in the increased cost of fuel, groceries, and goods (which all rose along with higher transport costs), and it’s a real loser. That’s before you even consider health insurance premiums.

Last year, we gave a 3% increase, while Knox County and Maryville both awarded 4.5% raises to instructional staff. This year, we’re down to 1%? With all the City’s posturing about “comparable cities,” we’re being left in the dust.

And, bleak as this budget is, it contains about a 6.9% increase in the request in funding from the City — $258,046 more than what the City’s “financial model” would allow.

Last year, the State Legislature in its infinite wisdom passed a law mandating 90 minutes of additional “physical activity” for all students K-12, along with a mandated “wellness coordinator” position to plan and audit the physical activity (translation: they want us to take 90 minutes away from academics and have the students “walk around” during the school day). If I heard Dr. Bailey correctly, we lose our Driver’s Ed program in order to fund the wellness coordinator.

So, what’s more dangerous for students: not getting 90 minutes of in-school exercise, or not getting quality driving instruction?

This is just the beginning. We MUST increase sales tax revenues in this city to decrease pressure on property taxes, but until then, we must avoid destroying what our forefathers spent more than a half-century building and nurturing.

We will not go quietly into the night.

Who signed it?

3,600 people is a lot of people.  Has anyone else wondered who signed that petition, and why?  More than one source has told me that I’d be shocked at some of the names.

Now, we can all know.  As of 5 p.m. today, there is a copy available at the Oak Ridge Public Library.

I would agree that it’s likely I’ll be surprised at some of the names.  I would also agree that it’s likely that some of those very same folks will vote YES in the referendum.  Especially if someone sends them the same information that convinced me and others to support the proposal.

* * *

A funny thing happened at the grocery store…

A busy Oak Ridge mother shopping with her young son at the grocery-store-which-must-not-be-named (hint: parking lot designed by a drunk monkey) had a bit of a meltdown in the long line, with a paltry three items in her cart, when an old battle-axe with a full buggy jumped ahead of her in line.

Young Mom yelled out, “THIS CITY NEEDS A TARGET!” in sheer frustration.  The seniors glared at her, but when she reached the checkout, the cashier looked her in the eye and said, “you’re right about Target.”

Hopefully, Target will have a self-checkout so that those of us who don’t shop for the sole purpose of making long-winded conversation with the cashier, examining coupons one by one, and so forth can get what we need and get out.  BTW, it’s wasn’t me who had the meltdown… not today, anyway.

But, I did take Gamma to JCPenney’s looking for shoes to wear with her orchestra dress, and came away empty-handed.  Again.  So, she’ll again wear Alpha’s narrow hand-me-downs, which hurt her wide feet.  Fortunately, she doesn’t have to wear them for too long.

Facts about Crestpointe

There’s a lot of information out there about the Crestpointe proposal, and I would hope that everyone in Oak Ridge will take time to familiarize themselves with the facts before voting in the June 5 election (early voting is May 16-31).

It hasn’t been formally announced that there will be a referendum, as the signatures have not been certified by the election commission, but it seems all but certain given the number that was claimed by those gathering signatures.

The City has a list of Frequently Asked Questions on their website, which is a good starting point.

Councilman Abbatiello has produced a white paper with a great deal of detail and analysis from a fiscal perspective (fig. 1 and fig. 2 are at the end), which he closes with the following very strong statement:

In my opinion, to do nothing is NOT an option! We must increase our non-property tax revenues within the very near future. Unless you have a better idea which can produce a higher General Fund return, you should support Crestpointe.

The Oak Ridger recently published an article detailing the conditions which must be met before any funds are released — these are critical, as the conditions are quite stringent and represent the safeguards that previous endeavors were lacking.

I’ve previously posted an e-mail from the City Manager with information about other sites that were evaluated, which many citizens continue to bring up as alternate locations.

Without question, there’s a lot more information to come, as a group has recently formed to help promote passage of this referendum (as a first step; their collective goals are actually much broader in helping Oak Ridge to grow and improve) and they’re gathering even more information to respond to questions in the community. This group is FOR: Future of Oak Ridge, and they’ll have a website up within days.

As Daco noted yesterday, it’s an impressive group.

Read up and be prepared to make an informed decision.

P.S.:  Here’s the Tennessean article about GBT’s similar development in Spring Hill

Well Said.

I’ve been struggling for words to express my thoughts about Elizabeth Edwards, but Susan Madrak has said it all so well.

I admire Mrs. Edwards for choosing to live whatever days she has left, doing what she wants to do.  It’s not up to any of us to offer what she “should” want, or what her husband “should” decide on her behalf.  She has the opportunity, it seems, to be part of something interesting — something bigger than herself — and I hope that she has fun and is as free from suffering as possible.

Positive Attitude

Daco’s got a really good post at Manland today.  Although I started this day still exhausted from last week’s travel, his excitement is contagious and palpable.

That’s one of the things I love about Oak Ridge: a diverse group of people can pretty quickly find one another and rally around a good idea, working together to make something positive happen.  It happened three years ago with the new high school, and there are many other examples throughout our history.

Aside from the obvious result of accomplishing something that makes the community better, there are tangential benefits as well — like becoming friends with people that we might not have otherwise gotten to know.

* * *

The bond referendum related to the Crestpointe project must pass, as the decline in our city’s sales tax revenue has reached a critical point.  We are more reliant on property taxes than any other city in the region, and it is this decline that was behind the funding shortfall in the schools’ budget last year.

It has not improved over the last year.  As noted in today’s Oak Ridger, the school budget presentation gets underway on Thursday.  I can tell you now that it will not be pleasant, and that many of last year’s issues will resurface.

Sales tax revenue is vitally important to education, because by statute, half of all local option sales taxes go to education (in our case, shared with all school systems in the county, since they superseded our tax rate last year).  It’s not money we have to beg City Council for, and if the sales tax revenue is healthy and growing, it results in less begging from Council.

That would make everybody happier.  I don’t like begging, and I know a number of Council members who don’t like being the bad guy, saying no.

Supporting passage of the referendum (the language on the ballot will be “Yes” or “No,”  with “Yes” approving the bond issue to move forward with Crestpointe) will not solve the budget problem this year or even next, but it will create a method for pushing us back in the right direction.

At the moment, we’ve gone far enough in the wrong direction that it’s going to be somewhat painful for everyone involved.

Up in Smoke?

On Tuesday, the Cigarette Tax Bill — SB 2326/HB 2354 — is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means committee.  This bill is the basis for substantial education funding improvements proposed by the Governor this year.

It’s also likely to be considered in the House Agriculture committee on Tuesday, where it faces a much more substantial challenge.

Last Tuesday, the Tennessee School Boards Association joined with other members of the education, business and health community as part of the SchoolsFirst Coalition to endorse the Governor’s plan.  Their website has information detailing the benefits to each school system in the state under various parts of the Governor’s proposal, but all of it is predicated on funding.  To date, I haven’t heard anyone propose specifics for another funding mechanism — only the usual drivel about cutting waste in other areas.

I really don’t care whether it comes from a cigarette tax or from not spending it to support things like the film commission, horse racing commission, or buying up land for conservancy… but please, if you oppose the cigarette tax AND claim to support education, suggest exactly where those dollars should come from.

* * *

Hubby and I just returned from most of a week in northern Michigan, where the very cheapest of generic cigarettes are over $5/pack.  Yet, there still seem to be plenty of smokers there.  When I pointed out the pricing to him, he suggested that eventually, all states will tax tobacco out of existence.  I disagree.

I’ve been smoke-free for 42 days now (that’s six weeks).  The difficulty of NOT going outside, lighting a cigarette, and watching the vestiges of night flee the first rays of the sun with the kick and subsequent calm that only inhaled nicotine can deliver, is still painfully fresh on my mind (and body).  Were it not for the fact that I chose to quit because I was tired of being a slave to the addiction — tired of the third-rate hotel rooms, tired of standing in the rain for my fix, tired of feeling like an outcast — yes, I would have gladly paid $5 for a day’s worth of satisfaction.

Even with the 40-cent tax, cigarettes will still be cheaper here than in a lot of other places, including several that I’ve traveled through in the last few days.
* * *

It’s time to quit squabbling over a too-small educational pie, and get serious about being competitive nationally.  In my 34 hours in the car over the past week, I listened to Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals, which provides a very interesting view of why some parts of the country do a better job of supporting education, and how it relates to the ethnic background of the region’s settlers.  If you’re easily offended, don’t read or listen to it, but if you’re really interested in some astute (and surprising) observations that likely assault your own ethnic heritage along with everyone else’s, it’s fascinating.

Decision Process

For weeks, the Crestpointe proposal has been in the local newspapers; it even made the Knoxville TV news once or twice (due to the petition controversy, not the decision itself).  Although there’s been no announcement from the election commission yet that the required number of signatures was certified, I can hardly believe it would be otherwise at this point.

So, it is almost certain that there will be a referendum on June 5.

I’ve attended one Council meeting and several presentations on the project, and I support it.  Some folks have come out against it for various reasons: some because of the need for City assistance, others because of the location.  However, I’m quite certain that there are a number of people — a majority, perhaps — who haven’t made a decision on whether they will support or oppose the measure in the referendum.

If you are among the undecided, what information do you need to make up your mind, how do you plan to get it, and when?

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