Sales Tax, Sharing, and the High School Debt

The following was submitted to our local newspapers for publication.  It’s already up on the Observer’s website, and will likely appear in the Oak Ridger at some point.

In recent weeks, several guest columns by a City Council candidate or former Council member have alleged that the School Board is “holding the city hostage” or “failing to comply with the voters’ wishes” per the 2004 sales tax referendum.

Neither claim is true.

The fact of the matter is that the City developed the financial model for the new high school financing, and there was concern even before the referendum that if the County superseded the tax rate before five years elapsed, there would be insufficient income from sales tax to make the bond payments.  After five years, it was said to be a non-issue because the City could retire other debt.  Because of that risk, there was an unwritten agreement that the schools would contribute their share in the event that the County superseded the tax rate within five years.

The County did so after just two, on a petition-driven referendum spearheaded by the former Superintendent of Anderson County Schools.  Naturally, the Oak Ridge School Board understood that we had to help out for at least the next three years; payments were actually made for the next five years.

After five years, the payments were called into question, and the School Board was advised by our attorney that such payments were not legal without some written agreement approved by both the Board of Education and City Council.  Thus, payments were suspended.  The money was set aside until such time as an acceptable written agreement could be developed and passed by both.

In the process of developing such a resolution, it came to light that for the last five years, the schools have paid the City not just the half-cent collected in Oak Ridge (as explicitly called for in the referendum), but the schools’ share of the half-cent collected countywide.  Historically this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but over the last decade, retail in Oak Ridge has been stagnant or declining, while retail sales in other parts of the county have been on the rise.

The net result of that discrepancy is that the schools have actually overpaid the City by $1,373,696, simply by transferring the half cent of the schools’ share of countywide taxes instead of just those collected within our city.

A resolution has been drawn up specifically allocating the half-cent collected within the city limits of Oak Ridge – exactly what the 2004 referendum specified – to be voted on by the Board of Education on April 30, and by the City Council shortly thereafter.  This year’s funds, held in reserve, will be transmitted to the City immediately following ratification by both governmental bodies.

However, the problem remains that sales tax collections are not at the levels projected in the City’s 2004 financial plan.  The schools’ share of the half-cent collected in Oak Ridge will not make the bond payments at this point in time. It is unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the recession that began in 2008, so it’s not a matter of a bad plan – just that it didn’t work out as expected.

Some would like for the schools to continue making payments at the previous level, but those are funds designated by the State for the operation of schools.  And, in case no one has noticed, the City’s annual contribution to the school budget has not been keeping pace with the cost of living (not to mention various other costs imposed by the State or Federal governments).

Although the vote has yet to be taken and I can speak for no one but myself, it is my sense that your Board of Education is willing and ready to work with the City Council to establish this tax sharing process, in a way that is legal and properly approved.

Neither side will get everything they want.  The School Board was told that this was a five-year commitment (ending in 2009) at most, and would prefer to pay nothing; City Council would like to have enough revenue to cover the bonds for several decades, regardless of the fact that sales within our city are not generating that amount.  Abiding by the explicit terms of the 2004 referendum is the best compromise.

That is what is contained in the resolution.  Clearly, the best path forward is approval of this resolution, and for City Council to redouble efforts to revitalize retail in Oak Ridge, benefiting both the City and the schools.

Is this even legal?

An accident occurs in the  parking lot of a small, local business — private property — and the drivers exchange information.  The driver at fault admits fault, and readily provides his name, phone number, address, driver’s license number, insurance company (GEICO) and policy number.

A week or so passes before Beta (owner of the injured vehicle) calls GEICO to report the claim.  They take the report, then say they need to talk with their insured.  Okay… but, weeks pass, and the at-fault driver doesn’t return calls to his insurance company.  He doesn’t respond to certified mail.

Or, GEICO says he didn’t respond.  Unfortunately, it’s been our experience over the last few weeks that it’s impossible to get a real person on the phone; you get the privilege of leaving a voice mail, and the one person (Antonia Johnson, Examiner Code F669) who can talk about this claim might call back in a day or two.  Usually at the least convenient time, like in the middle of an upper-division physics class, or when Beta was riding her bike from UT to Island Home.  So, we’re thinking it’s possible he tried to call — maybe multiple times — but just didn’t leave a message.

Benefit of the doubt seems warranted, since he was very polite about the whole thing and did provide accurate information.  Meanwhile, GEICO also called HWTFM at work to get his version of events.

Earlier this week, Beta got a letter from GEICO stating that because they have been unable to contact their customer, and lacking a police report or verification of independent witnesses (evidently, HWTFM is not considered independent; why did they bother him in the first place?), they were dropping the claim.

It took me just one quick phone call to the tire store; the gentleman who answered the phone remembered the accident.  It only took another two minutes before he found an employee who had been in the parking lot at the time, and saw the whole thing.  So, I called GEICO and left a rather terse message to that effect, and provided the Ms. Johnson with the information when she got around to returning my call.

So, she talked to an independent witness who could verify that the white truck pulled out and hit the side of the black truck.  He didn’t know either of the drivers (thus, qualifying him as a truly independent witness), and didn’t write down tag numbers or anything, but gave an accurate description of the vehicles and drivers.

A description which matched, by the way, the cell phone photo that Beta had already e-mailed GEICO.  It showed the front of his white truck, and the side of her black truck, with his body partially in the photo as he leaned on the front bumper of his truck.

Still, GEICO says they cannot settle the claim because the independent witness cannot positively confirm the identity of the man in the white truck.  The man whose name, address, driver’s licence number, etc. is recorded in his own handwriting on a note in Beta’s possession.

WTF?

Beta has an appointment with a GEICO adjuster next week, and Ms. Johnson said that if they can speak with their insured before then, the adjuster will be authorized to cut a check.  If not… we’re right back where we’ve been for six weeks already.

I do believe that the Tennessee Insurance Commission needs to know about this.  And the Better Business Bureau.  And probably some other folks in a position to right this wrong.

Meanwhile, if you’re shopping for insurance, caveat emptor: the lizard’s not nearly as helpful as he is on TV.

 

 

 

About the sales tax…

In this morning’s Oak Ridge Observer, guest columnist Trina Baughn referenced a post from this blog from April 14, 2006, regarding a gentleman’s agreement between the mayor of Oak Ridge (at that time, David Bradshaw) and the Anderson County mayor (at that time, Rex Lynch) about when or if the County planned to supersede the sales tax.

Unfortunately, she only told half the story.

That particular gentleman’s agreement was that the County would not do  so for at least five years.  Thus, when the financing was planned for the new Oak Ridge High School, the financial model assumed that Oak Ridge would continue to collect its share of the higher sales tax for five years, then that the County would supersede.   However, it was prudent to make a contingency plan in the event that the County didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, which indeed, they did not.

That contingency was, if the County superseded the sales tax rate before five years elapsed, that the school system would remit it’s portion of the new dollars from the County share of sales taxes to the City, to go toward bond repayment on the high school.  But only until the five year period was up, when the City had assumed they’d lose that money anyway.  This too, was a handshake deal — there was never a Board vote, nothing signed.

The schools held up their end of the arrangement, not only through the five years from the initial referendum in 2004, but several years beyond.  However, the time is well past due for the City to adhere to the original financial model, which assumed that the County would have superseded the tax rate anyway.

The schools’ attorney has advised that Oak Ridge Schools cease making these payments, and has been in communication with the City.  Because attorneys are involved, it would be unwise to go into the detail and links I would otherwise provide.   But our Superintenent, our Director of Business Services, and our former School Board Chairman, John Smith, all recall the facts exactly as stated here.

The school system held up our end of the agreement, and then some.  To continue making these large payments to the City would put the City at risk of running afoul of the State’s “maintenance of effort” law, and deprive our students of operational funds that the State has designated for the purpose of their education.

How Long?

Four years, nine months, and nine days have passed since I quit smoking.

But in times of stress (like this afternoon), it seems like I could pull into the convenience store, buy a pack, and light one up — just like the old days.  I don’t know why the poison filling my lungs would feel so good, but it would.

I would gladly stand on the deck, with my back pressed against the outside wall to avoid the rain, just to feel that calm wash over me.

But I won’t.  I know myself: a pack would lead to a carton, and that carton to a lifetime of slavery to cigarettes.  To standing outside when everyone else is inside.  To having to build in extra time every day for a habit that would eventually kill me.

I’ll settle for a Tom Collins and keep cleaning the house for company tomorrow.  I just wish that someone could tell me that someday, that feeling will go away entirely.

Vouchers and random thoughts on education reform

In Tennessee, we are experiencing renewed discussion on school vouchers.  Essentially, that’s taking State education dollars and allowing parents to use those dollars toward private school tuition instead.   The initial bill would apply only in the state’s four largest cities (Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville), and only to economically disadvantaged students.

At first blush, why not?  Shouldn’t poor parents have the same opportunity for their children’s success as well-to-do parents?

The heart of the matter is, that ‘s the problem that public education seeks to address in the first place.  Vouchers wouldn’t level that playing field, because the dollars they’re offering (about $5k/year) wouldn’t cover the tuition at most, if any, private or parochial schools.  If the parents are poor to begin with, it’s unlikely that they could come up with the difference.

Secondly, private schools don’t play by the same rules as public schools.  Getting in is not just a matter of paying the tuition, but being accepted in the first place.  Academic and behavioral records are a strong factor, as are things like the ability to pass an admissions test.  Of course, a strong athlete might be granted a waiver on those types of things if the private school was looking to beef up the football team.  However, since private schools aren’t held to the same accountability standards as public schools, who’s to say that little Johnny Quarterback is going to be any better educated when he gets out?

If you believe the generalization that public schools are failing and private schools are not, why not level the playing field and make the rules the same for both?  Require all to take (or not take) the same tests; require the same (or no) certification and evaluation of teachers.  Allow both (or neither) to use selective admissions criteria.

But if we did that, then what would be the distinction between the two?

*  *  *  *  *

This morning, I read in the Commercial Appeal that some schools are now offering supper (in addition to breakfast and lunch) to students enrolled in their after-school programs.  Granted, I understand that the only nutritious meals some children receive are those served at school, but at the same time, one of the key factors in a child’s well-being is the consistency of meals taken with the family.

If that’s not happening, what’s the value of going home at all?

One of the commenters noted that perhaps the school should simply become a boarding school, and just send the kiddos home on weekends for a visit.  Perhaps that comment was in jest or sarcasm, but… why not?  For kids in the worst inner-city schools, with the worst home conditions, that might very well be the best thing that could happen.

If the state and/or federal dollars that currently go to support those families (WIC, food stamps, welfare, housing subsidy) instead followed the children to boarding school, I’d bet that the kids could improve academically and socially a whole lot faster.   They would be in a stable environment where study and proper behavior was the norm.  They would be properly nourished, with adequate sleep and supervision.  They would not be subjected to the criminal environment that pervades their parents’ neighborhoods.

It sounds like a drastic change, but not unlike the drastic changes sweeping public education in Tennessee today.  We’ve added high standards and testing for students, as well as high standards and evaluations for teachers.  To truly succeed in reform, however, we need to address the quality of parenting.

 

Halloween Nostalgia

Halloween is decidedly different than it used to be.

Forty years ago, a 7-year old could be turned loose on All Hallows Eve, traipsing for miles in search of candy.  There were lots of hard candies, a few with the prized miniature chocolate bars, and then, the treasured houses with homemade treats.

Like Mrs. Streetman’s homemade popcorn balls.  Those were excellent!

Even in 1970, we weren’t allowed to eat homemade stuff from people we didn’t know, but that’s beside the point.  The point is, back then — or even ten or fifteen years ago — Halloween was one of the main ways that kids got to know the adults in their extended neighborhood.  Not just the people next door and across the street, but people in a half-mile radius around our homes.

Now, it seems that most parents either take kids to some organized event (our church’s Trunk or Treat is one) on another night and skip Halloween altogether, or they drive kids to some other neighborhood.  Every year, Briarcliff is overrun with children spilling from cars bearing license plates of surrounding counties.  Some residents reported 500 kids or more… with streets blocked off by police cruisers to protect pedestrians.

Last night, we had all of nine little goblins stop by.  Throughout the neighborhood, lights were on and porches decorated, but there’s a lot of leftover candy in our neighborhood this morning.

The loss in this is that we don’t know our neighbors as we used to.

 

Physics vs. Phys Ed

Just WOW.

There are 19 gym teachers in the Farmington School District who make more than $85,000 a year each. The average gym teacher’s salary in Farmington is $75,035. By comparison, the science teachers in that district make $68,483 per year on average.

Farmington has 11,647 students in nine K-4 elementary schools, two 5-6 “upper elementaries,” and two 7-8 middle schools.   Evidently, the high school is in another district, as it’s not mentioned in their annual report.  So, it would seem like the heftiest coaching supplements — varsity football and basketball — are not included in these gym teachers’ salaries.

Michigan schools, like most, use pay scales based on education and experience.  The glaring pay differential between gym teachers and science teachers tells me that the gym teachers have probably been there for a few decades, while the science teachers are relatively young.  And they don’t stick around all that long.

It’s likely that, for middle school at least, the science teachers have a bachelor’s degree in a particular science field: physics, chemistry, biology, etc.  These days, that’s required for the “highly qualified” designation and if most of the teachers are relatively new, they would probably have been hired under those guidelines.

I’m not implying that phys ed teachers aren’t needed; they are.  Some kids live for gym.  Others would never get a lick of exercise without it.  The brain works better when one can get the wiggles out.  Yet, there’s no denying that the job options for science teachers are somewhat more expansive, both within the teaching field and in the private sector.

Maybe Farmington is just undergoing turnover, and this particular disparity is an aberration.   For their sake, I hope so.

Unless we’re content to lead the world in kickball.

 

A Real Woman?

On Facebook, the following post has been making the rounds:

A real woman always keeps her house clean & organized, the laundry basket is always empty. She’s always well dressed, hair done. She never swears, behaves gracefully in all situations & circumstances. She has more than enough patience to care for her family, always has a smile on her lips, & a kind word for everyone.

Yeah, right.

My house is not as clean nor organized as I would like, the laundry basket(s) are seldom empty, I’m not always well-dressed, and my hair often looks like I flew in on a Harley with no helmet.  I can’t promise that I never swear, am quite sure that I’m awkward in some situations, and run short on patience on occasion.  Sometimes I scowl, and not all of my words are kind.   That grouping is not what I aspire to, but it is what it is.

Yet, I’m quite certain I’m not a man.  I’ve given birth without drugs, and gotten out of bed the next morning to care for an infant and three children ages six and under.  I can pick things from my backyard garden and make supper of it, with all the nutritional value needed for my family.  Three of those four children — all girls, by the way — are in college or graduate school.  All are mastering fields traditionally not thought of as women’s work: math, physics, and materials science engineering.

And they can all cook, to varying degrees.  Alpha can sew, and Beta is learning.  Delta can take apart just about any electronic gadget, re-solder the loose connections, and put it back together in working order.  Gamma is very gifted with young children, especially teaching them to swim.  I bet none have empty laundry baskets, but they manage to wear clean clothes every day.

Yet, any one of us can comfort a child, or an animal in need.  Any one of us can prepare nourishment — for one, or many.

A “real” woman?  That would be one who puts her family first, whether that means excelling in the domestic arts or bringing home the check that pays the mortgage.  I guess the same would be true for a “real” man — one who puts family first, whether that is in the role of provider or caregiver.   Or some combination of both, as is more common today.

Come to think of it, I have some more caregiving duties to attend before the sun rises tomorrow.  Take care, and be real — whatever that is.

Charter Changes Emerge

On Nov. 2, along with selecting a Governor, a new Congressman, and our State Rep. and State Senator, Oak Ridgers will approve or reject three questions on changes to the City Charter.   The full list of proposed changes has been transmitted to City Council, which will meet on Aug. 23 to formally receive them and request that the Election Commissions of both Roane and Anderson Counties place them on the November ballot.

The most substantial change to most people would be moving the city elections to November of even years (to coincide with State and Federal general elections), rather than the June of odd years pattern we’ve followed for a long time.  The argument for the current method (June of odd years) is that it keeps the focus strictly on city issues; the argument for moving it to November of even years is that it would dramatically improve voter turnout — both because people tend to put forth more effort to vote in these larger elections, and because it’s not at a time when people are typically on vacation.

The second question changes the residency requirement to run for local office from six months to one year.  That’s not a huge change, but a sensible one, in my opinion.

The third question is a series of relatively minor changes, including

  • that Council (as a whole, not individual members) have the power to investigate “all city departments, offices, boards, commissions, committees, and agencies;”
  • adds the city’s website to the required publication for all official notices (in addition to a newspaper of general circulation);
  • increases the public notice requirement for appropriations amendments from five days to ten;
  • outlines purchasing authority;
  • adds an equal employment opportunity clause;
  • states that City Council shall establish an ethics policy consistent with State law.

Many, many other potential changes were discussed, argued, and considered, but in the end, these are what were approved by the full Commission.  On the November ballot, questions longer than 300 words (namely, Question 3) are likely to be summarized, so it’s worthwhile for all residents to read the whole 3-page document and start thinking about the decision.

The big one is the first question, as that represents the biggest change for Oak Ridge.  For a long time, I’ve been among those who feel that the standalone June elections give us a better opportunity to showcase city issues and candidates.  Over the past couple of years though, I’ve put a lot of thought into the prospect of combining with a November election, and I’m persuaded that the higher voter turnout is probably worth the additional competition for voters’ attention.

And, it saves a few dollars.

Study up, Oak Ridge.  This is your town, and your decision to make.

 

 

Was Dr. Kevorkian all wrong?

About 20 years ago, as my maternal grandmother lay slowly dying, my mother gave me very clear instructions: “if I’m ever like this, just shoot me.”

I love my mother very much, but I’m really not interested in going to prison.  At the same time, I understand where Mom was coming from.  She was emotionally frayed from watching her own beloved mother dying a little bit at a time, over a decade or more, of strokes that progressively took more and more of her brain.  It was pretty awful.

Just last week, my 89-year old mother in law told us, “don’t get old.”  Kind of strange advice given the alternative, but she’s on the opposite end of the problem as her body fails, while her mind remains strong.  There was no request for us to kill her, but she repeatedly said that she might not be around for Christmas.

I’m guessing she could be around for several more Christmases, if she chooses to.  It’s hard for me to know if she’s in physical discomfort, or if she simply misses her husband (gone 10 years now) more than she loves what is left of life from her living room chair.

Today, my friend G traveled a great distance to visit her ailing mother.  G’s mom has Alzheimer’s Disease, and no longer recognizes her own daughter.  G asked me the same thing (not so graphically, but nonetheless the same result) as my mother did: to kill her when that time came.  Just give her an overdose of something.

What, do I look like Dr. Kevorkian?  Of course not.  But maybe these strong women sense that I feel much the same as they do — that end-of-life care is too successful in prolonging the life not worth living.  That maybe we do need an out, a way to say “enough is enough” when we’ve long outlived anything resembling quality of life.

I do not believe in taking the life (or denying life-saving treatment) to one who wants to live.  At the same time, is it not equally wrong to deny peaceful passage to those who are ready to go on their own terms?

I think it is.  I hope that by the time I am old and worn out, we’ll have a better option.

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