April 2007

More learning about learning

In Day 2 of the National School Boards Association annual conference, the first session I attended today was on NCLB, IDEA, and the law of unfunded federal mandates. Moderated by Ron Wenkart, who serves as General Counsel for Orange County, it was a lot of information that all of us already knew (unfunded mandates are wrecking our budgets), but some key information about the details that I, for one, didn’t know.

The big one for us is IDEA — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It’s pretty easy to agree that individuals with disabilities should be educated, and that accommodations must be made for some students. That’s not the problem. The problem is that the law is so far-reaching in terms of what public school systems must pay for — nursing care for a student with a feeding tube, occupational therapy for students with motor skills issues, even the cost of a residential treatment facility for students with severe emotional disturbances.

I’ve asked more than once in our Board meetings, "where is the line between educational services and medical services, and at what point is the family or their insurance company responsible for these costs?" The answer I received today was that the courts have held that all services except those of a physician are the responsibility of the school system. When the IDEA originally passed (in the 1970’s, I think), the intent was for the federal government to cover 40% of the cost. But they don’t. For many years, they covered only 8%, and today it’s up to about 16%. While that sounds like progress, the problem is that the number of students identified as special ed has skyrocketed — and local school districts are stuck with taking money out of general education to pay for special education services.

Wenkart got into the details of the "spending clause" in the US Constitution — Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 — under which the IDEA and NCLB were enacted. In short, that means that Congress can require states (and local governments) to do things not specifically enumerated in the powers of the federal government when those requirements are in the form of strings attached to money allocated. In South Dakota v. Dole, the Supremes broadly interpreted the spending clause and upheld Congress’ conditioning of federal highway funds on a state’s enactment of a minimum drinking age of 21.

In South Dakota v. Dole, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the dissenting opinion, holding that the clause was too broadly interpreted, and that there should be a more direct and immediate correlation between the mandated action and the purpose of the funding, but it was the minority opinion, so the ruling held and has been subsequently used as precedent for other, similar cases.

As an example, it would make sense if a school system simply said "we’re not going to accept any NCLB grants (which we don’t get anyway), and we’re not going to abide by the mandates." Unfortunately, that would mean the system would lose ALL federal funding, not just the NCLB funding that they already don’t receive. Worse, it’s likely that they would also lose all State funding.

Although Congress passed the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act in 1995, the gaping loophole is that it does not apply to legislation or grant programs which were a condition of federal assistance or a duty arising from participation in a voluntary federal program — funding with strings attached. IDEA does not take into account the growing and heavy burden placed upon local school systems to comply, nor the impact on general education from dollars being sucked out of it every year to cover special services for a few students.

The State seems fixated on the schools’ role in solving the obesity epidemic, when the incidence of autism is skyrocketing (costing an average of $40,000 per student, as opposed to a rate of about $9,000 per student otherwise). How much more positive it would be to identify the causes and cures of disabling factors, than to simply keep bullying local school districts into solutions we are not equipped to provide.

* * *
Today’s general session featured Bill Clinton as the headline speaker, whose primary message was that schools must play a greater role in preventing childhood obesity. Once again, trying to foist upon us a responsibility that does not fit well with our primary mission.

I realize that his motives are noble, but the whole nutrition and lack of exercise problem is a problem at home, not at school. Our job is to educate — yes, even educate about proper diet and exercise within the confines of wellness classes — but the school system cannot take over the raising of every child.

You really don’t want that.

The Weakest Link…

… is the transition from eighth grade to ninth grade: middle school to high school.

Attending the National School Boards Conference this weekend, I’ve heard from some interesting folks, and learned a few things already (having only arrived at 5 a.m. EST — putting me in a rather sleep-deprived state).

In the transition from middle to high school, kids move from a task-oriented situation to one that is ability-oriented; it’s not just whether you do what you’re told, but how well you do it that matters. Simultaneously, they’re moving from being the uppermost echelon of their society, to being the lowest caste. All while their brains are undergoing a massive change, resulting in a very short attention span and irrational results.

Three studies using the Harter Student Self Perception Survey found that students’ perceptions of themselves declined between 8th and 9th grades in the following areas:

  • Physical appearance
  • Job competence (mowing lawns, babysitting, etc.)
  • Romantic appeal
  • Behavioral conduct
  • Global self-worth

So, just as they’re going into a more socially and academically challenging situation, this group suffers a blow to their self-esteem: they perceive themselves as ugly, incompetent, unlovable, bad, and worthless. Gee, who would do well under those circumstances? It’s mostly a matter of brain chemistry, partly a matter of the transition taking place at a non-optimum time.

The things they tend to fear about moving to high school are:

  • Being bullied
  • Mean teachers (to a 14-year old, "mean" is synonymous with "gives a lot of homework")
  • Getting lost
  • Having time to get to their lockers
  • Being late to class
  • Finding a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Amount of homework
  • Grades
  • Graduation
  • Extracurricular activities.

There was no difference found in any of the three studies between rural and urban students.

Finding ways to mitigate the emotional trauma is critical, because the US Department of Education’s own statistics show that, of students who fail one grade K-12, 40% do not graduate. Of those who fail two grades (K-12), 90% do not graduate. And, while it costs roughly $9,000 per year to educate a child, it costs about $40,000 per year to keep him incarcerated if you fail to educate him.

Of course, citing the problems was not the end of the session: some solutions were offered. However, I do think it was the clearest, most concise evaluation of our weakest link, and I do plan to pass along the information to the rest of the school board (as they do, sharing information from the sessions they attended).

Information, please…

The studious folks at Future of Oak Ridge have recently updated the information page on their website; if you have questions about this project and need to learn more before the June 5 election (early voting May 16-31), go now and read until you’re satisfied.

Once your questions are answered, if you think you’d like to help encourage others, sign up on the volunteer page — a little time and a little money from a lot of people goes a long way.  The passage or failure of this referendum stands to make a significant difference in Oak Ridge — for better or worse.  And, if you like this proposal and want to help, you should also come to a little gathering on Thursday.  It’ll be fun.

*  *  *

One part that I think many people don’t fully understand is the impact that sales taxes have on education.  The way that Tennessee’s tax system is structured, half of all local-option sales taxes go directly to educationDo not pass City Council, do not collect County Commissioners.  It’s divvied up between all the school systems in the county where the revenue is collected, according to student enrollment.  So, if Crestpointe is built, Anderson County Schools will get about twice as much money as Oak Ridge Schools, because they have about twice as many students.

The flip side of that is, when the new Wal-Mart opens in Clinton at I-75, Oak Ridge Schools will get our share of sales taxes collected there.  And, since it’s right on the interstate, we’ll be collecting from a lot of folks besides just those who live here — a lot of new dollars there, too!

*  *  *

I’m looking forward to today’s edition of the Observer.  Last week, they had great coverage of the School Board candidates; this week, I think it will be City Council.  Since there are about seven running, I’ll be interested to see what the candidates have to say for themselves, along with where they stand on things like school funding, growth and development.  I sure don’t want to lose what Oak Ridge has historically been — with ample parks, greenbelts, large yards and lots of trees — but nor do I want us to be closed to growth.

We need new residents (their homes are being built now); we need new businesses — particularly retail — to improve the health and stability of our tax base.  We don’t need a whole lot of new jobs for the sake of numbers, but the right kind of jobs should certainly be courted and welcomed.   We need a City Council that supports our priorities, not a roadblock to any new development that might cut down a dandelion, nor requirements to count trees or for all new homes to be on postage-stamp lots.

Odd Factoids

  • 470 of the 3,588 people who signed the referendum petition weren’t registered to vote (13%).
  • 2,023 of the 3,117 registered voters who signed the petition (64%) DID NOT VOTE in the 2005 municipal election.

Reader survey:
Would you expect a higher turnout for this year’s municipal election?  Remember, in 2005, there were more Council and School Board seats on the ballot, with both contested.

Finished before it started.

Kenny Bartley — the 15-year old killer in Campbell County’s school shooting — has taken a plea bargain.

[Oak Ridger]  Kenneth Bartley Jr. agreed to plead guilty to one count of second-degree murder and two counts of attempted second-degree murder in the 2005 shootings at Campbell County Comprehensive High School.


He was sentenced to 45 years in adult prison.


So, the last year’s worth of psychological evaluations, jury screenings, and various defense motions were really just a scheme to buy time — one last year of childhood in a life forever ruined by one fatal decision: the decision to shoot three high school administrators, instead of just handing over the gun.

The latter would have meant a year’s expulsion from school, and probably charges handled in juvenile court. It might have turned him around.

There were other bad decisions, of course; the decision to take the gun to school to trade for Oxycontin wasn’t too bright, nor was the desire to get Oxycontin to start with. I’m not sure how many years "45 years" really is, though I suspect it’s somewhat less. Maybe probation in 15, 20?

However, I have to express my admiration for Jo Bruce, the widow of slain vice-principal Ken Bruce. She has continued her job in Willowbrook’s family resource center, working with families having difficulty… perhaps averting such a tragedy for someone else. She has become a quiet but tireless crusader for greater school safety. And, she endorsed the plea deal:

Jo Bruce, the widow of the slain administrator, endorsed the plea bargain.


"We did the right thing. We feel like this will help our community start to heal. I think (my husband) Ken would say, job well done," Bruce said.


In her shoes, I doubt I could summon the incredible grace she has displayed.

Easter Eve

The weather-guessers predict that tomorrow morning will be the coldest Easter morn of my life, possibly in all of recorded weather history.  (No, they’re NOT the same!)

I missed the Maundy Thursday service because of the School Board budget work session; I missed the Good Friday service because HWTFM was ill.  Fortunately, our church made the decision to move the Easter sunrise service back into the sanctuary; although I love the traditional outdoor service, I have to admit that it would be tough to sit through with children at 20 degrees or so.

Whether you celebrate salvation, forgiveness, or simply the renewal that comes with Spring, have a Happy Easter.  And stay warm.

Point : Counterpoint(e)

In his second letter-to-the-editor on the subject, Wal-Mart employee Alan Harris makes some interesting points worth exploring.


• Fact 1: Target and any other yet-to-be-named retailers that would set up shop on the ridge would garner 30 to 40 percent of their sales from existing retailers already collecting sales tax revenues for the city and county coffers at this time. Therefore, this would not increase sales tax revenues. If they were to then double their sales over and above this volume, the sales tax generated would be half of the proposed new sales tax revenues. I would not consider this a significant new sales tax revenue.



If new retailers would garner 30%-40% of their sales from existing retailers in Oak Ridge, then 60%-70% of the sales would be NEW dollars! Those opposed to the project keep asking where the "new" revenue would come from — it’s not that Oak Ridgers would suddenly buy a lot more, but that we — as well as our neighbors who travel through Oak Ridge to shop Knoxville — would spend those dollars here instead of elsewhere.


• Fact 2: These other yet-to-be-named retailers may include former stores in the now basically defunct Oak Ridge Mall. Some of these retailers have moved to other locations, such as Manhattan Place and Jackson Square. Some of these no longer exist in those locations, either. Their demise can not be blamed on exorbitant rent charged by the former Mall owners. The logical deduction then is that they could not survive on the volume of sales that they were producing. Therefore, I submit that the shoppers from Oak Ridge and the surrounding area did not shop there frequently enough for them to survive. Perhaps these stores would still be reluctant to reopen upon this proposed ridge and that’s why they remain unnamed. The developers cannot reveal their identities because they have no serious commitments other than Target. I believe this same problem exists for the current mall developers. No commitments. I personally know of one current retailer in Oak Ridge that sought to relocate in the mall and was told that they were not currently seeking any new tenants. It makes one wonder what the mall owners and developers are really planning.



The City’s list of terms and conditions (which must be met for any financial participation by the City) include a statement that 350,000 of the 400,000 square feet of new retail space must be businesses that are not currently located anywhere in Oak Ridge or Anderson County. That’s 87.5% new retailers that we don’t have anywhere in the county.


• Fact 3: If Target truly wants to come to Oak Ridge, they can afford it on their own and do not need developers or city funds to do so. If available dead stores are not suitable or other available property is not available, they again have the money to buy out people in these suitable locations, and will if they want to be in Oak Ridge badly enough.



"IF they want to be in Oak Ridge badly enough." I suppose that could be so… but it’s in our own best interest to give some consideration to our own needs and wants as well — like the need to increase retail sales so that our property taxes don’t skyrocket.


• Fact 4: The restrictive covenant that prevents Target from building on current mall property is standard business procedure and has been for many years. Long-time Oak Ridgers will remember when Treasury Drugs was located in the old Food City strip center on Illinois Avenue and that the White Store located in the old Food City building did not have a pharmacy. As long as Treasury Drugs was located in that strip center there was a covenant that prevented the shopping center owners from leasing to anyone that would consider opening a pharmacy in their store. I am sure that many of you have gone in a store somewhere and wondered why there was no pharmacy, yet all their other stores had a pharmacy. If you had paid attention, there was a Revco or other drug store in that strip center and there was a covenant in their lease that prevented any other pharmacies from being opened in that center.



Just because something is standard practice doesn’t make it beneficial to the City or its residents. It now seems to be standard practice that you have to have a customer loyalty card to get the better price on groceries everywhere except Wal-Mart; that’s clearly advantageous to the merchants, but a pain in the keychain to everyone else.


• Fact 5: The traffic generated on this ridge would be unbearable for those that needed to go to Knoxville for a reason other than shopping. Perhaps they have a doctor’s appointment or a family member that has been taken to an emergency room in a Knoxville hospital and would like to get there as soon as possible. Have you ever been late because of traffic?



Perhaps the gentleman needs a map; there are multiple ways to Knoxville besides going over the hill at Boeing. From Illinois Avenue, I often take Scarboro Road (to Union Valley or Edgemoor Road) if traffic appears to be a problem going over the hill; many folks on the east end just run along the river to Edgemoor to hit either Clinton Highway or Pellissippi Parkway. If you want to cite traffic snarls, take a long, hard look at the extra red light in front of Manhattan Place — the only place I’ve ever seen traffic gridlock in Oak Ridge. And it does gridlock, almost daily.

Look, I understand why Wal-Mart might be worried. Competition makes one try harder, just as the advent of the Oak Ridge Observer made the Oak Ridger a better newspaper. While it might be some extra work for Oak Ridge’s long-running daily, there’s no question that competition fostered improvement, which benefited all of us who read the papers.

It is critical to the economic health of this city to expand our retail base, and this plan is workable. Join the effort today, and let’s make something good happen on June 5!

The Latest Data

Predicting the future is always one of the more difficult aspects of governing; we’re fortunate in Oak Ridge (and Oak Ridge Schools) to have some folks on staff who are gifted in that area.

They don’t claim any prophetic talents — no crystal balls, incense, turbans and the like — but they are handy with calculators, formulas, and such.  Since the last City Council meeting (which I missed, as it was during Spring Break), the forecast for Crestpointe (should the bond referendum pass) has been revised and refined.

—–Original Message—–
From: Jenkins, Steve
Sent: Thursday, March 29, 2007 2:05 PM
Subject: Latest Crestpointe Analysis

As a result of discussions at the last City Council meeting, attached is a spreadsheet that incorporates the very latest information on Crestpointe. The changes from the original analysis are as follows:

 1.       The analysis now incorporates the actual borrowing that will be recommended. The amount of that borrowing is $2,500,000 for 15 years @ 4.5%.

2.       The balance of the $10,500,000 or $8,000,000 will be paid from reserves that will be advanced to the economic diversification fund by the debt service fund.

3.       The model includes a contribution by the County of approximately $87,000 annually for the taxes paid to the County by Target. If the County does not contribute to the project, the repayment schedule would be extended by 2 to 3 years.

4.       Property tax collections from the site grow at 3 percent annually, which is conservative based on the City’s tax history for the prior 15 years.

 After incorporating these changes, the results are as follows:

 1.       The property tax collections alone will pay the debt service on the $2,500,000 and replace the $8,000,000 within a 15 year period. This is very important to the project because no sales tax collections will be necessary to retire the debt. In addition, there will be some funds, (approximately $800,000) available in year 14 and 15 for other uses.

2.       Any property tax collections from the site after 15 years will no longer be necessary for the project and the lease agreements can be released. At that point, property taxes will be paid as normal to the City and County and can be used for other purposes.

3.       This analysis shows that any net increase in sales tax collections will provide new revenue to the City, City Schools, and County Schools.

4.       If the City chooses, it could use a portion of the sales tax to retire the debt and/or replace the reserves earlier.

5.       Finally, in this analysis, assuming the buildings are constructed, the project downside moves from 10 cents on the tax rate to no negative impact on the property tax rate. The upside is also much better.

This analysis still includes a $60,000,000 net gain in sales tax collections for the City and County, but as stated earlier, any gain in sales tax collections will produce new revenues for the City, City Schools, and County Schools.

This is a very viable project, and one that I truly hope Oak Ridgers will support in the coming referendum.  The only remaining question I’m hearing is, “where is the ‘new’ sales tax money coming from?”  The answer, very simply, is that the “new” revenue is that which is currently going to Knox County, when our residents (and others who would otherwise shop in Oak Ridge because it’s closer to where they live or work) have to go to Knoxville to buy the items they want and need because of the limited selection here.

It’s not money that isn’t currently being spent, it’s just being spent elsewhere.

If we had someone who could coordinate Oak Ridgers the way Pat Summit coordinates her team, there’s no limit to the things that could happen here.  Unfortunately, we don’t listen quite as well as the Lady Vols, with far too many armchair coaches and not enough teamwork.

We can change that, and should.

What Matters

Today, I methodically finished some work that needed to be done, then struggled the rest of the afternoon through another task I’d been putting off for too long, but the day ended well when AT and the boys found the Time Out Deli unexpectedly closed, and since I’m used to cooking for a small army anyway, they came on by for dinner.

The boys are so precious: MastaG right at the precipice of “tweendom,” Pigpen an easily-pleased little angel.  Gamma (master babysitter that she is) scoops him up to cuddle, while Delta goes about showing MastaG that not all girls are girly, and can play in the mud with the best of the boys.  “Mud” is putting it politely, as they were digging in the chicken coop again.  Next time, I’m going to offer them cash to carry the “mud” from the chicken coop over to the tomato bed in my garden.

Naturally, with the kids in the coop, the chickens wandered all over the yard.  Pigpen squealed with glee when the little red hen flew up to the table, ready to scarf up the remains of of their supper.

No matter how challenging any list of tasks, when it closes with friends and family, it’s a good day.

Today Is…

If you don’t know what day it is… well, it’s Sunday. A day of rest. A day to relax, and how better to relax but with a good laugh?


Alpha called this morning to tell me — very excitedly — that Google is offering a free wireless internet beta. Just go go the Google homepage, and click the link.

The alarm went off at 7 this morning, as I wanted to go to the 8:00 service so that I could pick Gamma up (returning from the Orchestra trip to Orlando) a little after 9. So I got up, showered, dressed, and got Delta ready to go, but driving down the turnpike, it seemed too dark. So I looked down at the clock in my car, which read 6:40. My watch said the same.

Hubby’s little prank was to set my clock back an hour, then set the alarm for me (as I rarely set the alarm at all, unless I have a plane to catch). He still claims he didn’t do it intentionally, but RealtorChick’s clock was also set back an hour… so it seems a little suspicious that HWTFM and PunkHP did a little scheming last night at Daco’s place, while we were otherwise occupied.

swim coverupI also happened across a great shopping site — another of those merchants we’re unlikely to ever see in Oak Ridge — and purchased a new swim cover-up. So, this is the shirt I’ll be modestly covering up in until I can lose the 15 pounds I’ve acquired since quitting smoking. I had one sort of similar when I was pregnant, but I think it got given away with the maternity clothes.
Go ahead and laugh, but HWTFM loves it.

And, the Museum of Hoaxes has a great “Top 100 April Fools Day” list. My favorite:

#7: Alabama Changes the Value of Pi

The April 1998 issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter contained an article claiming that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the ‘Biblical value’ of 3.0. Before long the article had made its way onto the internet, and then it rapidly made its way around the world, forwarded by people in their email. It only became apparent how far the article had spread when the Alabama legislature began receiving hundreds of calls from people protesting the legislation. The original article, which was intended as a parody of legislative attempts to circumscribe the teaching of evolution, was written by a physicist named Mark Boslough.

Have fun!

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