Roy Exum: Leaders Stand ‘Way Back’

Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Franklin McCallie, a former principal at Howard School and the maverick in one of Chattanooga’s finest families known for education, delivered an impassioned speech before the Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday. Sadly, his remarks came after the commissioners had passed the FY2018 budget that has no financial methodology for the Department of Education, much maligned in the past 18 months, to possibly move forward in the way the entire community seems to want.

Turning to Superintendent-Elect Dr. Bryan Johnson, who attended the weekly meeting, McCallie promised Johnson, “These people,” he waved his hand at the seated commissioners, “will stand behind you but, unfortunately, it appears it will be way, way back instead of up close.”

For months public education, or the lack of it, has been the subject of studies, seminars, focus groups, neighborhood meetings, prayer studies and public outrage. But it has clearly been for naught – nothing more that tepid air. The Hamilton County Commission has just passed an increase of 1.7 percent for the entire county in what I believe is the worst abuse of “being fiscally conservative” I ever saw. This budget will take us nowhere; just be thankful with these elected officials in charge that we are already there.

One commissioner, begging to remain anonymous, called the budget process to fault. “In the past all the commissioners have gathered and talked about the budget with one another but now the Mayor and his staff handle the whole thing. We just rubber-stamp it. We have workshops but how much true input did you see? The commissioners just sit there.”

And Wednesday he was right. The commissioners just sat there. Joe Graham tried to no avail. Tim Boyd was so ineffective he couldn’t have gotten ‘a second’ on the sun rising in the east. Everybody just sat there and Franklin McCallie, who wasn’t supposed to speak, found such disregard so startling that when he stood to challenge it, he received hardy applause.

Commissioner Greg Beck was almost apologetic to McCallie, asking if he knew where Franklin could get “a great big bucket of courage” to pour on the commissioners that he had just thoroughly and rightfully embarrassed. The Hamilton County Commission displayed a marked lack of courage, no doubt, and it would hardly be a reach to say each of the commissioners most certainly jeopardized their chances for re-election next spring.

Finally Beck said, “District 5 is ready to go. We’ll do what it takes,” but with the exception of Boyd and Graham, everybody else just sat there in fear of anything that may cost a vote. Just “sitting there” should be the biggest reason of all to prefer a candidate who promises courage and the willingness to “do the right thing right now.”

The commission chambers were overflowing yesterday, many standing along the walls. There were boxes of letters begging for more education funding that will never be opened and no way for the school advocates to speak until long after “the dealing” was done. Yet approval of the $691.5 million county budget was so subtle, many in the room didn’t realize it had taken place. When it dawned on the crowd, the commission’s proceeding had to be halted so the spurned public education supporters could leave the room.

McCallie, whose grandfather founded one of the top private prep schools in the nation, left such a comfort zone to become a gifted principal in the inner city some years ago. He told the commissioners a quality education costs money. He said that every child should have the same opportunity and that, in his mind, there was a disparity among the public schools.

“I believe 97 percent of children have the same ability to learn but not the same opportunity due to a number of reasons. You are denying education when you do not fund it,” he added, saying no tax increase in 12 years was unbelievable. With some of our failing schools destined to be hijacked by the state, his words were both true and prophetic.

Another speaker pointed out the commission had just passed a budget that has no provisions for new schools, $230 million in deferred maintenance, or any future growth. She also said that with eight of the nine commissioners expected to run in the May 2018 primaries, she doubted there would be any tax increase on the FY2019 budget that will precede the final ballot. (Commissioner Jim Fields has announced he will not run for re-election.)

Don’t think the newly-appointed Johnson didn’t get an eyeful and, since his contract is still being negotiated, there can be little doubt as he drove back to Clarksville yesterday afternoon he had to wonder what on earth was he thinking when he earned center stage in such a circus.

Earlier this week, the men most involved in the rape of an Ooltewah basketball player by his teammates filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. This legal action joins a mammoth lawsuit by the player who was raped and about 20 other lawsuits after five children were killed in a school bus catastrophe and others were permanently injured.

While the commission met Wednesday, the Secretary of Education in Trump’s cabinet – Betsy DeVos – announced that Wayne Johnson, a viable candidate for the Hamilton County job, was her pick to become Chief Operations Officer for the federal Office of Federal Student Aid in Washington. The FSA currently serves 42 million student-loan borrowing clients and administers more than $1.4 trillion (with a ‘t’) in current outstanding Federal Student Loan balances. Is that a step up?

When Johnson learned he would not get enough votes in Hamilton County, he recused himself from the process last Thursday, this before the School Board selected Bryan Johnson over Interim Kirk Kelly. It has been learned Kelly will retire when his contract expires next week, doing consulting instead. School board chairman Rev. Steve Highlander was with Johnson at yesterday’s meeting and said he prayed for wisdom up until the very second he broke a 4-4 tie last week.

I believe God hears every prayer but, in this case, so did Commissioner Sabrena Smedley. Prior to the start of the Thursday meeting where votes were revealed, my friend Sabrena asked my opinion of what would happen and I told her, based on past voting, Kelly would win. She baited me further, asking what I thought Highlander would do and I told her, “That’s easy, he’s solid Kelly.”

“Wanna’ bet?” the lone female commissioner giggled before the meeting ever started. So, yes, I now owe her an ice-cold Coca-Cola. I am constantly mystified by Commissioner Smedley’s ability to predict the future, intercept prayers in mid-air, to be such a clever clairvoyant, and stuff like that.

But, Lordy, after yesterday’s public education shun, I am going to see if she wants to ‘double-down’ on her re-election chances if she decides to run next spring. With her district booming and her inability to provide school repairs, an additional middle school, and the fire marshal disallowing schools to be over 100 percent capacity, the belief is that some students in Smedley’s district will be rezoned this summer. Are you kidding me? I am eager to see if Sabrena will wager me a case of ice cold Coca-Colas and maybe a pretty basket with some symbolic toast. Rezoning children, don’t you see, is lethal to politicians who refuse to support education.

The mood of the County Commission towards additional funding for HCDE now appears as cold as last Thursday’s toast.

Attorneys for Bryan Johnson and the school board are now working on a contract that will enable the Superintendent-Elect to form a transition team. Three of Kelly’s top staff – Jill Levine, Zac Carter and Jason Robertson – were at the commission meeting. “We want people to see the Department of Education is in complete and total support of Dr. Johnson," it was stated.

“People know and realize, I hope, that Dr. Kelly did a magnificent job in the past 18 months turning the district around. He really did,” said Robertson, “yet things change. We are excited about the ideas and enthusiasm Dr. Johnson will bring to our system and we are thankful to Dr. Kelly, and the system’s principals and teachers for the wonderful school year we all enjoyed.

* * *

Franklin McCallie’s summation of this week’s County Commission actions should be on T-shirts: “They’ll stand behind you … but it will be way, way back”

* * *

Five members of the School Board will be on the May 2018 ballot if they decide to run for re-election. The board is split every two years in a four-year term. On the May 2018 ballot will be Joe Smith in District 3 (believed to be a possible candidate for the County Commission),  Karitsa Jones in District 5, Joe Galloway in District 6, David Testerman in District 8, and Steve Highlander in District 9. All but Smith and Highlander voted for Dr. Kelly last week.

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