April 2009

Campus safety

With two daughters at the University of Tennessee, I was pleased with the college’s implementation of an alert system using students’ cell phones.  Most of the time, the alerts are of the “not unexpected” variety — muggings along the dark areas between Cumberland Avenue and campus, etc.  They’re useful, but not panic-inducing.

Last night, the alert was more serious: “Suspects armed with a gun last seen in Reese Hall.  Unknown direction of travel.  Two of three suspects arrested, no gun found.”  So, the guy who actually has the gun is still at large.

Both Alpha and Beta are signed up for the text alerts.  Alpha got it; Beta did not.  Unfortunately, Beta’s the one who needed to get it, since her dorm is in the immediate vicinity of Reese Hall.  Fortunately, Alpha called her, and Beta stayed in her room instead of leaving to visit a friend, as she had planned to do.

The only media source that has picked it up so far is WBIR, and the comments beneath the story indicate that many students didn’t receive the message, or didn’t receive it until hours after the fact.

The text alerts are a cool system, but are only useful if they can reach all of the students in a timely manner.  I hope that can be fixed.

Schools Budget FY10

The FY2010 Oak Ridge Schools budget was approved last night.  School programs as everyone knows them are intact — transportation for all students living within the district (including the alternative school and the preschool), and with the same number of teacher assistants that we currently have (a reduction of six had been previously proposed).  No additional funding is  requested from the City, beyond the 3.5% increase they proposed in their budget process.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is, our teachers — our absolute greatest asset — received no pay increase for the second year in a row.  As best I can determine, it’s the first time we’ve ever gone two consecutive years without any a cost-of-living increase.  I think there’s some hope that, once we actually receive the stimulus funding and know how we’re allowed to spend it, we may be able to give some type of bonus to teachers and staff… but it’s not the same.

Raises are cumulative.  Bonuses are a one-time feelgood gesture.

This year, we had a greater number of citizens (okay, three or four people — but still a greater number) actually downloading the proposed budget and examining it for ideas.  I think that transparency is healthy, promotes greater trust by our citizens, and creates the opportunity for more eyes to look for potential savings in the budget.  Not surprisingly, it’s difficult for most people to understand, not having the background that the board acquires throughout the year, and most of the suggestions turn out to be not very viable.  But, it’s worth doing — no one is infallible, and there’s no way to be sure that someone isn’t going to find something that the rest of us overlooked, unless we explore every option presented.

The real heroes this year are the schools’ staff, who followed up with collecting up-to-the minute data on everything from utility usage (as it turns out, we’ve achieved significant savings in heating costs through a new climate-control system and more efficient boilers in some of the schools) to sales and property tax trends (not quite as healthy as expected two weeks ago), and following up on the latest developments in federal funding stipulations (they’ve changed).

One question that arose from pubic input is the $200,000 allocation for the Trustee’s Commission.  This is an amount withheld from the funds we receive from Anderson and Roane Counties (mostly from sales and property taxes), and the amount is established by state law in TCA §8-11-110.  However, upon further inquiry, I learned that the Anderson County Trustee collects about $1.2 million in fees from all sources, while his total office budget is $540,566.  The remaining $600,000+ just goes into the Anderson County General Fund, which leads me to believe that the State needs to reevaluate the Trustee’s commission amount.

But that’s not something that could be achieved within the 12 days we were given to complete this budget.

For now, let’s all work toward a healthy economic rebound over the next year.  That will help more than anything else to ensure that the teachers and programs we value in our schools can continue in the future.

Weirdness

This afternoon was a beautiful day to cruise with the top down, as I did in taking Beta back to school.  We also made a side trip to the apartment complex where she’s planning to live next year, not far from campus, just so she could show it to me.

Waiting for a left-turn arrow on Chapman Highway just across the Henley Street bridge, a scruffy-looking man in a white utility van pulled up and shouted at us, "you better answer next time I f***ing call you!

Neither of us have ever seen the guy before.  No idea who he is… so I’m guessing he mistook us for someone else.

And Beta tells me that Knoxville is a safe place.  Heh.

April’s Fool

This isn’t a joke — it really happened. 

Last Friday, Jim Hackworth put together a meeting of city, county, and schools officials for the purpose of discussing extending broadband access throughout Anderson County.  The meeting was hosted by ORAU, who has the most modern conference facility I’ve ever seen.

** Note for the trolls: there was not more than one representative of any elected body, and there was no deliberation, so there aren’t any Sunshine Law problems.

ORAU’s Wayne Stevenson demonstrated some of the impressive features of their Center for Science Education, which is used for a variety of things — student field trips, teacher education (including teaching teachers how to use some of the very cool and not necessarily expensive technology), and many other things.  The tie-in between the two is that students, teachers, and parents can’t take full advantage of educational opportunities that technology can provide, if they don’t have internet access.

But beyond education, local government officials are interested because ensuring broadband internet access is key to economic development in attracting residents and businesses.  It also facilitates growth.  So city (Oak Ridge, Clinton, Norris, Lake City) and county officials alike listened with rapt attention to the possibilities.

Except one.  I guess he was bored, so he was surfing the web on the ORAU laptop provided at every seat as a feature of their impressive conference facility.  So, right in the middle of the presentation, he stumbled across the Outback Steakhouse commercial with its distinctive music blaring from the speakers.

He didn’t know how to mute the sound, so he shut the laptop as every head in the room turned to see which kid wasn’t paying attention in class.

Guess who?  (If you’ve already heard the story from someone who was there, don’t spoil it.  I know who you are.)