Roy Exum: Rebranding & ‘Culture’

Monday, January 22, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

My grandfather, who ran several very successful businesses, was a very astute fellow. I can’t tell you how many times he said, “The worst thing any salesman who calls on a business can say is, ‘I am here to save you some money.’ That’s not true -- In every instance they are in front of you hoping to make some money for themselves, else they would have never come by.”

Another great axiom: When we moved the newspaper to East 11th Street after breaking away from the Times, there were so many demands on our cash that any ideas that were not directly related with getting a quality product delivered to our customers were ignored. Once an out-of-town newspaper executive noticed the overhead ceiling was quite in disarray and said, “Mr. McDonald, does it concern you that your ceiling needs repair?” to which was born the classic reply, “Sir, I don’t print newspapers with my ceiling.”

In Bryan Johnson’s quest to “rebrand” the Hamilton County Department of Education, the idea is being studied to change the name of the school district to “The Public Schools of Hamilton County.” It is openly feared that the school board, so easily led by the very department it is to oversee, will go along with the foolishness when, in fact, it will accomplish exactly zilch in the education of any given student.

That Johnson and his “C Suite” colleagues are eager to change “the culture” of our public schools could be the biggest blessing in the history of education in Southeast Tennessee. The arrogance, the I-could-care-less attitudes, the baffling method of ignoring pleas from various schools for years, and willingness to stand by and allow $235 million in deferred maintenance alone all must change.

“That culture,” if I may dare say, has been carefully gardened by a parade of somewhat despicable dandies from the Central Office since the City and County schools merged 20 years ago. Boil off the fat and you’ll find the county’s white Commissioners refused additional funding for the black City Council and, after the carefully-forced merger, the city’s blacks were at the whim of the county’s whites.

It hardly takes a kid with a “social diploma” to track the truth of what has happened to public education. The huge majority of the blame falls on the Hamilton County Commission. Just this summer in the FY2018 budget, public education received a 1.9 percent budget increase. That is sheer lunacy yet for the 12th straight year it assured there would be no property tax increase. It also proves that at a time when it takes $10,000 per child for education in Hamilton County, not one County Commissioner gives a rat’s tail about what happens to our children. See for yourself … then vote on August 18.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger, despite the fact he is one of the best in recent memory, hides behind the fact 66 percent of the budget goes for education but corner him and he’ll tell you why it isn’t enough. Open his head and look in there with a microscope (just a magnifying glass will not do) and you’ll find he knows exactly why our public schools are now stagnant – a horrible lack of leadership, worse in courage from the County Commission and an abnormal parade of sloths on the school board over the last two decades. Coppinger also knows what every first grader can understand – whether it be 50 percent, 65 percent, or 80 percent of an inadequate budget, the end sum will be inadequate.

The unseen cancer that has emerged over the past 20 years is the fact the School Board has only one purpose. It hires the Superintendent. Now that we have a good ‘super’ hired, the school board dallies and dickers over inane topics when – and this has been true ever since 1997 – the school board simply rubber-stamps Central Office decisions. For instance, HCDE has a literal genius in charge of finance and budget. Christie Jordan is so good that when she presents the yearly budget – over 300 pages – the board members sound like a garden party in Biloxi. “That’s wonderful … how nice … that’s so nice … you are most diligent …” Whammy – the rubber stamp rushes it to Mayor Coppinger’s office. Are you kidding me?

Another part of the “culture” that has become an elephant is “awards and recognitions.” A conservative 80 who attend the school board meetings – or sit on it – could care less that Nettie Sue won the Spanish-Speaking American Society’s Wallace P. Rodriguez Revolving Crystal Cup. Hand out the award at Nettie Sue’s high school and don’t impede nor steal away anybody else’s time. Never broach any subject that doesn’t require a vote – fax or email information beforehand, or discuss it in a work session – but use school board minutes wisely. The County Commission doesn’t have the “culture” the school board can’t seem to break. Change that.

I am serious. The lackadaisical style and mundane chatter in the culture of the school board is maddening; a leader could shuffle the entire deck in less than 20 minutes. A good example is reflected by Rhonda Thurman – maybe the best of the bunch – who has begged and begged that student fees be abolished in public schools for years and has been pointedly ignored. “The worst bullies at our public schools are the teachers who are cruelly forced to gather fees from their students,” she will tell anyone. “The parents don’t have extra money and the child gets caught in a vicious cycle. No wonder they dislike their mean teacher … wouldn’t you pout instead of learn?”

David Testerman, another board member whose focus is squarely on each child, loathes fees as well but told me the lack of money that trickles into the schools from the county is probably over $1 million a year. “Even at that it would be a great advantage to take any burden off a child. You have to put each student in a position to learn and worrying about $5-by-Friday-morning is not right. That’s on the Central Office.”

The “culture” is that the fees issue could be dealt with surely and swiftly but – due to a lack of courage by nine elected officials – it will last forever, bogged in rhetoric. All talk – no action. Every month the five biggest problems should be listed, addressed, resolved … and retired.

So here is how to make a decision about rebranding from a page in the book of Common Sense: What is the overall, factual and itemized cost to change the name to “The Public Schools of Hamilton County?” If as much as a dime is diverted from the goal of getting a child to read on grade level, it is a bad idea. While sign painters, stationery printers and others who find unknown lucre in rebranding the same steer won’t like it, every single step towards success must directly involve the children or there is a marked dereliction of duty by an elected official.

* * *

Mike Krause, the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, knows that the State of Tennessee ranks No. 42 in education in the United States and a big reason is that the 4,000 teachers that are produced each year by Tennessee’s colleges and universities are “mediocre” at best. As Krause said in a recent interview, “I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

UT-Chattanooga, whispered to be horribly disappointing by veteran HCDE teachers for several years, has already had an “intervention” by state officials – whatever that means – and meetings with Austin Peay, UT-Martin and Tennessee Tech were also “productive and illuminating,” said Krause, adding, “In many cases the presidents just didn’t know” about the problem graduates.

A 2017 “Report Card” will soon be released and Sara Heyburn Morrison of the State Board of Education is not optimistic over what it will reveal.

* * *

Nearly 75 percent of Tennessee’s seniors ‘re-took’ the ACT test in 2017 and it was reported 19,000 had better scores on the second try. That’s good but, candidly, means nothing. But over 2,300 raised their composite grade to 21 or better, qualifying for Hope Scholarship funds. This is also good except for the fact UT has a 60 percent graduation rate.

The bad news – the Tennessee taxpayers paid for the tests to be re-administered at a cost of over $2 million. As you go to your calculator and see how many times 2,300 will go into $2 million (it about $865.50 per test), ask yourself if we shouldn’t have used that money to boost pre-K education in a state where education is No. 42.

My point? No matter what you score the first time you take the ACT, or the second, you’re gone that June. Done. We don’t get a second chance to educate a child. So the better move is to educate them earlier, as proficiently as we can, and if they can read at grade level as high school seniors, the chances are they will not need a second try.

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