Roy Exum: 'No’ To School Budget

Sunday, May 12, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

When County Mayor Jim Coppinger meets Tuesday to address a $443 million budget request from our public schools, it is an odds-on bet he will have heard that those poor unknowing souls at Thursday night’s school board welcomed the news with a standing ovation. But elsewhere in the fourth most-populous county in Tennessee, few others clapped. The reason is that the rest of us are good and by-gumbo through betting on a dead horse.

I fully suspect I am the biggest proponent of teacher raises in our district, but last week our school board glistened and preened over what was candidly no more than an in-house pep rally. I don’t believe our public schools have come anywhere near deserving a budget increase. That is going to be unpopular to some, but I think I am in the solid majority when my stance is our public schools must – from this day forward – “earn” what we give.

When our school district can prove it, I’ll give them the deed to the courthouse but, until then, hold your flowery dreams and what you ‘hope’ will happen. Promises mean nothing – they don’t cash. I am one of thousands of taxpayers who want proof our money is working. Right now, as you will soon see, the only proof I can find is the same ol’ dead horse. From an investment view, any expert will agree our public schools' effort is a terrible buy right now.

I am convinced, without exaggeration, we are in the biggest mess I could ever have imagined our public school system would befall. When I see our school board seek public approval for an outlandish 11-percent increase over our budget of just five years ago, I realize our public education efforts in Chattanooga must be dismantled, rebuilt, and rededicated. Throwing more money at the dead horse ain’t gonna’ work. We know because there is solid proof over the last 20 years it never has.

It's time to “stop” and, given the truth, there is no room for dissent. Pay attention to this … it is neither warranted, justifiable, nor fair to those taxpayers our County Commission soon hopes to force an unexplainable public education raise from $399 million in 2014-15 to $443 million just five years later. If your church, your company, or your children, did this, you would blow the whistle.

I beg you, digest these facts …

The honest truth is that in the last 10 years, there has been no improvement, if any, by the Hamilton County Department of Education. Yes, that’s bold to say, especially when Superintendent Bryan Johnson is trying his best to sell “Hamilton is the fastest-growing school district in Tennessee.” That, too, is markedly untrue, but this is not to invite argument.

This is cold-hearted reality.

According to SchoolDigger.com, a web site that ranks Tennessee’s school districts, Hamilton County is among the worst metro districts in the state. In a report updated Tuesday, September 18, 2018, this based on the 2017-18 school year test scores, Hamilton County was 91st out of 140 districts.

More discouraging is the finding that in 2010, HCDE performed 32.3 percent better than other schools in the state but – according to the latest report -- eight frustrating years later HCDE performed only better than 35 percent of the schools in the state. A 2.7 percent difference in eight years is not what one person in Hamilton County would tolerate from their own child, nor – regretfully – comes anywhere near what our taxpayers have been led to believe.

The fact is HCDE is not getting it done. In the NFL, seven years under 50 percent gets the head coach and his assistants fired. The same is true in Major League Baseball, not to mention General Motors, nine out of every 10 new restaurants three years later, the top hospitals in America, every living politician, and the shrimpers in Louisiana who don’t fill the nets. Life is hard. What we must do is acknowledge it and fix it.

SchoolDigger’s records show that between 2010 and 2018, there was only one year where HCDE was in the top half of the schools in the state; in 2017 we were 58.9 percent better than over half of the other districts in the state but we were on a fast downward spiral.

By that September, Bryan Johnson was hired as Superintendent. Remember, his was the fattest package ever offered in Hamilton County to any public official because we were so desperate 60 percent of our third graders could not read at grade level. Today those third graders are in the fifth grade … and teachers tell me they still cannot read at grade level.

Last September, when the 2018 test results became official, HCDE had plummeted 40 spots to 91st. (This is no slap at Bryan – the three superintendents before he was hired were fired by the school board in the most tumultuous fiasco in Hamilton County history.) It took some doing to get this bad, and dumb is a tenacious task to overcome.

Points of comparison, this too from the SchoolDigger website: On its last report, Williamson Co. (Franklin) is 4th, Rhea Co. is 42nd, Bradley Co. is 43rd, Dayton (city schools) is 47th, Knox County is 76th, Sequatchie Co. is 78th, Cleveland (city schools) is 99th, Davidson (Nashville) is 129th, Shelby (Memphis) is 134th, and Nashville’s cash-rich Achievement District, that you’ll recall the now departed Commissioner Candace McQueen shoved down our throats? Dead last at 140th.

Then know this: In February 2019 the Tennessee Department of Education flagged 25 school districts across the state for disproportionately disciplining children with disabilities, especially blacks. The list included the biggest districts in the state: Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Knox County Schools and Hamilton County Schools. Forget the other metro districts … focus on us. And weep.

We can all agree the state of public education in Hamilton County is unacceptable. This new budget calls for a $34 million increase to the district's $409 million in projected revenue for the 2019-20 academic year. That’s about 8 per cent in a tri-state community of over 400,000 where – let’s be real honest – you cannot find enough people to fill a thimble who have had an eight percent boost in personal income in the last 12 months. Please, how can you swallow such truth?

I can empathize with Supt. Johnson and his “want” list. Our public schools are clearly in the tank. I’m guessing he’s already losing sleep as the ringmaster of such a circus. But here’s the burr under my saddle – if it will cost a little over $6 million for our teachers to get a 5-percent raise, where is the other $29 million of his bold ask going to end up? The teachers’ raise is the push point but – make no mistake -- it is also a ploy to pull your gaze away from the total ask of a $34 million increase and, brother, such a shell game is almost dishonest.

We are told the schools will hire social workers and counselors – long overdue – but we aren’t told our idiotic “equity” effort, this nuts-so “diversity” scam, and the zany irrational input from our ‘liberal elites’ is going to be scrapped so we can hire social workers and counselors instead. The HCDE is sacrificing nothing we all agree is pure bunk.

Then there are the bottom-dwellers, whose dreams and schemes never cash in. Remember Chattanooga 2.0? That guy moved out of town. UnifiED turned out to be an election tool for the zanies. Our Public School Foundation, with its multi-million payroll, brags about training principals, teacher development blah-blah-blah. But if our student test scores have shown no improvement over the past eight years, simple logic reveals the Public School Foundation ain’t squat, either.

At Thursday night’s school board celebration the wisest of them all, Rhonda Thurman, rightfully balked because there are items in the budget that are ridiculous. If you give me Rhonda, and I give her a red pencil, I can quite easily show how we can find $6.2 million in the current FY2019 budget to give our teachers a 5-percent raise by this Friday.

Better yet, allow me to pick five teachers now in the system. I’ll need five red pencils, but the truth is we already have teachers at literally all 77 schools who confide they cringe at the idiocy they see come out of the central office every day. The school budget reflects misplaced greed.

It doesn’t take into effect our terrible streets, the pressing needs in our Sheriff’s Department, the every-day needs of county government that has been grossly neglected for want of a tax increase. Our mentally-ill have never had their needs properly met because, every year, the schools are a far easier conversation. How does that make sense?

Regardless of who holds the red pencils, if common sense were the denominator at HCDE, you’ll need a big dumpster for the loads of garbage and probably a couple of those Teamster buses to haul away those in the Central Office who only use up oxygen day after day.

Why isn’t this as good a time as any to proclaim, on the behalf of the taxpayers, this debacle ends now?

My solution? I would hold the FY2019 budget in place for another year, this after we skillfully use a chain saw to cut away $6.2 million to be reallocated for teacher’s salaries. But, wait … do we give the 5-percent across the board to the same tired staff whose genius has cost our children dearly since 2010? Chain saws are made for dead wood.

The most wonderful word in any business model is ‘accountability.’ Every county commissioner should insist on documented proof of progress from our public schools. Why not, we do it to every student in the system, no? The test scores that show almost 70 percent of 140 school districts in Tennessee are better than Hamilton County is just one yardstick. There are others that do not include some company in Boston looking for its next $30 grand.

What I wouldn’t give for a carefully-selected group of bonafide leaders from Volkswagen, Unum, TVA, UTC, the Lookout Mountain Tomato and Banana Company, and – my mercy -- others who must show a profit to study the school’s budget request. Could such a collection provide an acceptable answer to the taxpayers why our ‘Super’ needs $85,000 “for dues and memberships?”

In my mind three things must happen quickly: we must have a mechanism to measure progress every week or accountability becomes a wink in the hallway. Wow, have we ever been a better witness to that one. Secondly, we are now about 14 months away from an election and we have school board members and county commissioners who have not done their jobs in my opinion. We are all good when sunshine warms our backs but we’ve flat-out ignored that 70 percent of the public school districts in Tennessee are better than our ditzy promises.

Oh, our elected folks – the ones short on backbone -- show up, write “for deposit only’ on their checks, but some – they know who they are -- have yet to do any ‘heavy lifting,’ which includes ‘confronting and conquering’. So help me, this is why there are 90 school districts in Tennessee better than us.

Third, and the biggest by far, our schools must insist our students become winners. As of today, they are not because of a lack of education. I, for one, say it is time for our school board to deal the cards face up. Tell us about our failings, our tough calls. Put the emphasis on the bad, which will bring it into the open and jolly-well demand we fix it pronto. It is a good way to nurture trust, a virtue that has seemingly been scant lately. Once trust is back, budget increases will be understandable and much more palatable. You’ll see.

This week I got a marvelous letter from a distraught mom. She wrote that this past Christmas she had an African-American couple who her family adores for dinner. Her kids made holiday cookies, they played carols, and the dinner became a highlight of the season for every soul who was there. But during the early hugs and greetings, she asked the two about Chattanooga State and the raw truth no one wants to admit bubbled out.

“We dropped out,” came the reply and the mother was shocked. Was it the money, transportation, the time it took?

“No, ma’am … none of that … we were simply unable to do the work. We quit because we didn’t know how to do it. We could not do the work,” said two bright and promising high school graduates who failed at Chattanooga State. They claim they were never taught how.

There, now you know the truth about our public schools and why 25 percent of the children who should be students in grades K-12 in our public schools have made Hamilton County a private school mecca. Should we tell the taxpayers one in every four children go to private schools, that their grandparents help with tuition, that for many it is a week-by-week hardship they feel is a necessity with no other option?

Now you are telling those same grandparents, along with the parents, the public schools need more money so they should pay more taxes because … well, you never know. We may raise a horse from the dead. Understand, we can’t guarantee it, and despite the literally millions we have thrown at that carcass with no visible effect, what’s another $34 million against the hope and the dream the dead horse will run again?

Public education in Hamilton County is a bad buy. It has been for years and little has changed, so I believe now is the time the taxpayers must change. Nothing else has worked.

royexum@aol.com


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