Roy Exum: Stupid Is As It Does

Monday, October 21, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Governor Bill Lee, still in his first year as the leader of Tennessee, announced several days ago that he would award grants to state school districts that make civics classes, and other courses in how government works, available to students, this in spite of the fact such classes should be mandatory and require passing grades. In a crystal-clear textbook case of how stupidity is cause for embarrassment and a lack of faith in our public schools, a collection of about 70 teachers have signed a most-unfortunate letter to the Hamilton County Commission that proves the 60 percent of the children in the Hamilton County system are not the only ones who cannot read at grade level.

There are 70 teachers who apparently cannot read, either. Not just that, they are so gullible and naive they seem to have been organized in this latest laughable lark where they call out – by name by jingo! – a majority of the same County Commissioners who just allotted the schools a record amount of funding for the fifth straight year. Now, one more time, here’s the way it works. The County Commission, each of its nine knowing full and well that teachers’ salaries were foremost on this year’s budget, gives the public schools a big amount of money. Because there is an elected School Board that, in theory, holds the Superintendent responsible and – again, this only in theory – provides the necessary oversight on how the money is allocated.

Every now-seated commissioner, throughout the budget process, was joined by the taxpayers in the belief that a five percent raise was included in the FY2020 budget. Each commissioner, including the five so brazenly called out in this latest chapter of a saga that the venerable Forrest Gump would surely label, “Stupid Is As Stupid Does,” deserves nothing less than a public apology and a new letter should be drafted – not to the School Board, mind you, -- but to Supt. Bryan Johnson, who masterminded the sleight-of-hand from the budget, and to his confederate, the teachers’ union president Jeanette Omarkhail. Johnson and Omarkhail created some wispy “committee of understanding” that took the money expressly supplied for teachers’ raises and instead funded 181 new hires by the Department of Education.

How Omarkhail ever got inside the HCDE budget circle is puzzling and how she ever wiggled her way into being cast as an agent for the teachers is an even greater wonder. It is believed fewer than 50 percent of Hamilton County teachers are members of the HCEA union. One reason for the spiraling demise is because Omarkhail erroneously told both the School Board and the Hamilton County Commission during the budgeting process that the teachers she represented preferred classroom aides instead of raises. She later, quite red-faced, retracted the false information.

The County Commission was told the “committee of understanding” had first reduced the planned raises for five percent to 2½ percent, but when the budget was changed – this after a 34-cent tax hike was rejected by the County Commission that Johnson believed would cover the cost of the new employees that had already been hired – to accommodate the new employees in the budget, a one-time raise for the teachers was financed by a $7 million raid on the school’s “rainy day” fund. This was done through youthful school board member Tucker McClendon, whose sudden grasp of facts and figures assured several other School Board members some skillful coaching … er, teaching, had taken place.

Sunday’s letter to the County Commission read as follows:

* * *


Dear Hamilton County Commissioners,

Each school year, the residents of Hamilton County entrust teachers with the care and education of their children. We wholeheartedly embrace this responsibility because we know that within each child rests the future of our community.

We work hard, often giving out of our own pockets to make sure our students have the things they need. The extra hours we put in, often at the expense of our own families, are given because we believe the work we do matters. Teachers do not expect to become wealthy in our line of work, but we do expect a fair wage.

The true test of whether or not our leaders support teachers is revealed in their actions, not empty praise. We are tired of hearing lip service from leaders whose votes do not match their rhetoric. Based on their actions, we have a group of elected officials who are content with our teachers being paid less than those in every surrounding district in both Tennessee and Georgia.

A student who promises to study for a test and fails to follow through only disappoints himself. Unfortunately, when our elected leaders say they support education, but fail to follow through with a vote that supports us -- everyone in Hamilton County is affected. Sitting by and allowing some of our best teachers to be lured into surrounding counties with higher pay and better working conditions is not in the best interests of our community. Yet this is what they have chosen to do.

On two occasions this summer, Randy Fairbanks, Sabrena Smedley, Tim Boyd, Greg Martin, and Chester Bankston voted against fair pay for teachers. Last week those same commissioners, Randy Fairbanks, Sabrena Smedley, Tim Boyd, Greg Martin, and Chester Bankston even voted against letting voters decide whether teachers deserve a competitive wage.

Actions speak so much louder than words, and these commissioners have repeatedly shown that they do not stand for teachers. From now on, we will stand for ourselves and work to hold them accountable to the residents of Hamilton County.

NOTE: This letter was signed by 70 current and former teachers. In an effort to shield the teachers from ridicule, embarrassment, and having a “Stupid Is As Stupid Does” letter placed in their permanent files, the names will be omitted at this time. Those wishing to learn the identities can contact the Hamilton County Commission’s business office at the courthouse. When the letter is read, it will enter the public domain and the names – of those I personally believe got as badly used as a drive-way basketball in the dead of winter -- will be in the county’s permanent records.

* * *

When the letter first appeared on several media outlets, Dr. T. Nakia Towns Edwards, the Chief of Staff of the Hamilton County Department of Education, got in the act when she tweeted Sunday, “Welp (sic), apparently, we the people of Hamilton County can't be trusted to decide for ourselves if we want to approve a wheel tax to fund public education. Y'all. This ain't how this democracy thing is supposed to work. Folks need to engage!” ( @TNakiaT ) Initially Dr. Edwards’ tweet was thought to have been directed towards some friend named “Welp” but it was then explained to be a Southern expression, much like “ya’ll” and “ain’t.”

Another school leader, Dr. Mary Catherine Gatlin, the principal at Loftis Middle School in Hixson, also tweeted, “Perhaps I should run for office and boot these peeps!” ( @mcgatlin ). According to The Urban Dictionary, “peeps” is a word that those “who are with it” use to describe, “friends, or close pals.”

On Wednesday of last week, County Commissioner David Sharpe attempted to bully the other commissioners into supporting what turned out to be an unpopular ruse of placing a $60 wheel tax as a referendum item on the county’s March 2020 ballot. The taxpayers left no doubt in the minds of the other commissioners that such foolishness would not be tolerated. It was not. Why clutter the ballot with another’s insanity that has absolutely no chance?

As I wrote at the time: “At (Wednesday’s) commission meeting, Sharpe knew his wheel tax was dead when he said, “I have concerns (for those on fixed incomes) as well. I empathize with these people to make ends meet from time to time, or all the time. We’ve talked about that at length. This isn’t about me. This is about the ability to recruit and retain high-quality teachers in Hamilton County. And if we can’t allow the people of Hamilton County to speak, then I don’t know where we go from here.”

Chairman Randy Fairbanks tried to get Sharpe to understand. Teacher’s raises are a School Board matter – the County Commission simply gives the School Board over $400 million (a record amount in each of the last five years) and then allows the school board to designate it as it wishes. “There’s nine elected school board members who decide whether the teachers get a raise or not. Now, we can suggest we’d like to see the teachers get paid more. But the money we give to the Department of Education, the board has to decide how to spend that money. So, we will not be discussing how to fund teachers’ raises (in the immediate future),” Fairbanks said.

The HCDE has repeatedly approached the County leaders for more and more money. Sunday’s ill-advised letter from the teachers only creates further angst between the Commission and the School Board. The county, which owns the land and the school buildings, is facing monstrous expenses in maintaining the properties, which estimates to fix the 78-building deferred maintenance account now in excess of a billion (with a ‘b’) dollars.

There is also a school voucher program that is expected to be rolled out in 2020 by the state. Currently the HCDE is receiving federal and state monies based on all school-aged children in the county but because of low performance, sky-rocketing discipline problems, and a host of other reasons over 30 percent of families with eligible children refuse to send them to public schools. Families who send children to private schools, who home-school or use other means will soon insist tax money allocated for their children will stay with their children.

The teachers’ letter Sunday was intended to be an insult to the County Commission and, no doubt, will be taken as such. The letter will accomplish nothing. The commission has viable and acknowledged records of how much money has been given to the Board of Education, which includes each and every teacher for each of the unprecedented five years that I have followed the story.

Forrest Gump was right: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

If I was one of the teachers who got suckered into signing such a letter, I would find out where it originated – whose idiotic idea was responsible for it_s being, what Judas goat was it that lured me into such a wolves’ den, and – very personally – I would write my own note of apology to the County Commissioner of my district. First to say I am sorry that I blamed you, and, secondly, to assure that person I am not in any way the kind of person who is so stupid I know neither the difference in what is the right way to act, and what is the wrong way that lesser people just sullied my name and what I really stand for.

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