Roy Exum: County Mayor Saves His Hide

Friday, June 30, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Some months ago, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger gathered a collection of Chattanooga’s best business minds to take a candid look at our embattled public school system. The group turned in a 70-page report of its findings and ideas. So after the County Commission thumbed down a tax increase for the 12th straight year earlier this month, I have been watching for the mayor to receive a good country butt-kicking for wasting some people’s precious time.

The most puzzling part of politics to me is when our elected officials certify a need, and they then don’t do anything about it. In the County Commission’s case, it is for fear of not being re-elected for another four years of doing nothing.

And I, for one, know our public schools need help in the worst way.

“You’ve got a good point. We all want better for our schools,” the mayor told me this week, “but let me explain the method to this madness. Our county isn’t ready to accept a tax increase. A big reason is because we haven’t done a good job presenting the case for our school system.

“The first thing I want to make completely clear is that the mayor and the County Commission have absolutely nothing to do with running the schools. We elect a school board to do that. I don’t tell the schools what to do at all. However, the County Commission is the funding source for the schools. The majority of our budget goes to the schools and we have to sell that to the taxpayers. That’s our job. The school board takes the money and spends it as they wish.”

Coppinger was lavish in his praise for the way his advisory committee identified the areas it felt the Department of Education’s business model would function better. For example, one of the first things mentioned was a ‘”C” Suite that would include a Chief Operations Officer, a Chief Information Officer and a Chief Talent Officer.

That’s well and good but with no money, how does that work? If our County Commission continues to sit on its hands, funding will never occur. “Short answer – the new superintendent (Dr. Bryan Johnson) can spend his budget any way he and his board pleases,” said the mayor, “but the long answer is that the school system is going to transition under Dr. Johnson and let him make decisions. This group identified areas and ways to better the Department of Education but it isn’t going to happen overnight.

“You are going to see the Hamilton County government work much more closely with the school board. I want to have fairly regular meetings with the commission chairman, the school board chairman and the superintendent. These three entities need to know a lot more about the role each must play if our schools are ever going to thrive. If we don’t work together, we’ll never regain the public’s trust.”

Coppinger talked about a misconception the Hamilton County Department of Education is bad. “That is simply not true. There were some things that needed to be fixed and (Interim superintendent) Kirk Kelly and his team had a good school year. I think people were pretty well pleased after what happened December a year ago,” he said while bemoaning the Woodmore bus tragedy.

“I will say we have got to think smarter … do we need to consolidate some schools, do we need a long-range plan for building and maintenance, how do we handle population shifts? All of these things need to be discussed but I’m not interested in why it has taken us so long to look at such challenges but the fact we are engaging in some areas that need our combined attention."

Have you gotten any complaints from your advisors over the commission’s lack of funding for education? “Absolutely not … the great beauty of this group in that they are realists. They didn’t expect to see a tax increase but they have a clear vision for what we expect to happen in the next two or three years. The Chattanooga 2.0 project was more about education. This group is more about business, eliminating unnecessary spending while utilizing our resources.

Members of the group included Valoria Armstrong, President, Tennessee American Water; Dane Boyington, Co-Founder/CTO, Thinking Media; Sheila Boyington, Co-Founder/President, Thinking Media; Larry Buie, General Manager, Chattanooga Gas Co.; Nick Decosimo, Managing Shareholder, Elliott Davis Decosimo; David Eichenthal, Managing Director, The PFM Group; James Haley, Chairman, Miller & Martin; Tim Kelly, Owner, Kelly Auto Group; Michael Lebovitz, Executive VP, CBL & Associates Properties; Dana Perry, Shareholder, Chambliss; and Kim White, President, River City Company.

“I think we need people like this involved in public education” Coppinger reasoned. “I believe the more assets you can draw to a problem the faster you can address but this is more than that … we need to build the best education model we can. We need to make the most of our resources.

“When the public can see all that is being done, my belief is that they’ll back education in Chattanooga in the way we all dream it can be done.”

I was just worried some of his advisors would be angry by the commission’s lack of courage. “Oh, wait … somebody’s kicking me just about every day,” he laughed. “Stick around an hour or two, you’ll see ….”

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