Roy Exum: Schools Get Reprieve

Thursday, June 15, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Moments after Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said until somebody has “the courage to stand up” against a disappointing 1.7 increase for education over last year’s budget, Commissioner Joe Graham told his fellow commissioners he was the guy. Next week Graham is expected to delay the acceptance of the just proposed FY 2018 budget. With that, the most beleaguered school district in Tennessee’s thirstiest city for public education got one more reprieve to shed a 12-year coat of “status quo.”

Granted, it will still take a magician to pull it off but by delaying the budget for perhaps a month, it appears that at least four of the nine county commissioners are willing to discuss an alternative plan that could accelerate what it will take for a renaissance in Hamilton County. “I don’t know whether I am for this or not … but I sure do think our constituents want us to have a conversation,” one commissioner said.

In the past 18 months it has been learned the Hamilton County schools comprise the worst metro district in Tennessee and the new budget proposed in no more than a Band-Aid on “the same old thing.” Parents and teachers are clamoring for a change. With a new schools superintendent who will find ample proof our school system has been allowed to rot, it has been learned there may be a way to strategically move the floundering system forward. 

Following new property assessments in the county, a new millage rate will be certified by the in late July or August and should the commissioners opt to retain the current rate of 2.76, approximately $25 million would be realized that could, in turn, create a bond ten times that size. Combined with the county’s AAA bond rating, the new funding could give Mayor Coppinger the ability to address a long list of aching needs in a county where the average school is over 40 years old and not one new school is on any architect’s table.

The new superintendent is expected to be chosen by the Hamilton County School Board at a meeting of the Board of Education late Thursday afternoon. The board will discuss the five applicants that were just interviewed last week in a work session at 5 o’clock and then actually vote during the quarterly meeting that will begin at 5:30 p.m.

In the early-week jockeying, it has been learned Bryan Johnson, the chief academic officer for the Clarksville (Tenn.) school system, may have emerged as the favorite. When the five final-finalists were chosen from the nine finalists, Johnson was the lone candidate to appear on every member’s ballot. Kurt Kelly, who has done well as Interim Superintendent since last March, will be a factor and so will Wayne Johnson, a successful business executive who would bring a different dimension many citizens want.

Believe it or not, there is suddenly a greater urgency developing for the school board. When the new superintendent is introduced to the County Council next Wednesday, he and the school board will be asked to present a three-to-five year progress plan before the county commissioners will take a huge, unprecedented step in a multi-million dollar funding of education.

A commissioner said, “Right now there is no plan … the school board has been flying by the seat of their pants. We need the school board to sit down with county officials to talk about $240 million in deferred maintenance to our existing schools, what are the needs for new schools, and how we can best use our facilities.

“Lookout Valley High just had a graduating class of 40 students. We must do far better in utilizing our resources,” added one commissioner who is eager to shake the horrid status quo tag – it has been 12 years since there was a tax increase for education.”

Another commissioner, speaking off the record in this, an election year, was equally concerned. “Don’t you think all of us know, down deep, that while we are standing still the world is passing us by?

“If we employ the millage tactic, which a lot of municipalities do, we could take immediate steps to embrace the new leadership with funding the school board can offer. If we do not, we won’t have this chance again since the rate is set for the next four years.”

Last week Mayor Coppinger contacted the school board about working jointly to address many key issues but, clearly, they groups can talk for the next 18 months but all they can do is smile at each other; there is no money in the budget.

“Our office is poised and ready to address any task the County Commission asks but until we get additional funding,” Coppinger told the group, “I’m afraid we can do very little.”

Or, more kindly put, embrace status quo for the 13th year with a tax increase.

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