Roy Exum: To Do The Right Thing

Thursday, May 23, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a story about the upcoming Hamilton Country budget and how the taxpayers are being asked for a $34 million increase for our public school system. “Why are we throwing more money at a dead horse?” was my question and, based on the weight of email that came in the story’s wake, there is a huge percentage of others who are past “sick and tired” in our support of mediocrity.

Shortly after that story, I was with County Mayor Jim Coppinger and a guy I feel is absolutely brilliant in the realm of common sense – Jim’s top advisor, Chief of Staff Mike Compton – and they know exactly how so many of us feel when we bemoan little, if any, bang for the taxpayer’s buck. That was not my reason to meet with them; I fear when we focus on our floundering public education model, many of the county’s other necessary services will be included in our disgust.

I know four cubic yards of asphalt cost far more on today’s menu than it did 15 years ago. I don’t care what it takes – a sheriff’s patrol car, trash disposal, sewage treatment (!), a prisoner in jail – life hasn’t exactly stood still. We all know that 10 years ago a loaf of bread cost $1.69 compared to $2.45 today.

My concern is that I love living in Hamilton County and I realize our happiness is in direct correlation with what we must pay for the very basic needs of our neighborhoods. “Let’s watch every penny … but let’s not scrimp in such a way we don’t do things the right way.”

Life’s No. 1 rule: “Always do the right thing."

If ever you need a primer in what one Band-aid after another costs versus the full amount it would take to properly rectify the program, then study the tragedy that has befallen every taxpayer in Hamilton County who doesn’t think our wastewater dilemma is a county-wide responsibility. Trust me, you’ll have no question why so many “Band-aid” providers actually rub their hands they are so ecstatic when any part of our antiquated county infrastructure finally breaks.

Yep, that’s me: fix it the right way and you’ll save thousands every time so then the question that’s in the middle of the table comes full circle: “Why are you so adamant we should not use your proven theory on our public schools?”

Believe me, when you sit with schools superintendent Bryan Johnson in a very open, non-accusatory way, and when you accept the truth that it’s not the way you feel that matters, but what really matters is what 44,000 children feel in their first steps towards becoming our next generation, it is a harsh awakening that no matter what -- we can’t just throw in and quit.

Here’s a good example – in every state of the Union, what is the biggest problem? What makes our best teachers quit? What is the greatest deterrent to classroom learning? I fully believe it is discipline, or the lack of it. In just the last 10 years it has emerged in a way the older generation can neither believe nor accept, but the fact is that the attitudes and behavior exhibited – this according to the best experts – by the emotional pain and mental anguish these kids bring to school every day is a modern-day phenomenon.

You’re right – who would have ever thought our greatest ‘Most Valuable Player’ in any school house would be a social worker? If HCDE gets the 15 social workers it has included in this year’s budget, and they are tasked with 44,000 students whose needs are paramount, that works out to one social worker for every 3,000 children. We can no longer accept that or, far worse, ignore that because the monster is so real, so scary, and so overwhelming, the national average is one full-time social worker for every 250 children.

There isn’t one among us – and there better not be! – who can overlook our kids whose needs are such they are placed in ‘special education’ classrooms. In every instance it demands a teacher with God-like skills, and a teacher’s assistant(s) whose abilities are magnified. Every school in the county system includes children with special needs yet who among us would have ever guessed that in the year 2019, over 15 percent of the children we are duty-bound to teach have afflictions we wouldn’t wish on anyone. And, yes, those children deserve every ounce of care we’ve got.

Supt. Johnson is just beginning his third year and, much to his credit, he has studiously refrained from faulting any school leaders or county commissioners who preceded him. With the full blessing of the school board and the County Commission, he commissioned an exhaustive study (cost: $500K) to properly evaluate the physical needs of all 77 schools in the county. When the findings are made in the coming months, the revelations will be shocking.

When he accepted his position the ‘super’ was told previous officials had allowed deferred maintenance that was thought to be as much as $300 million. But he and Mayor Coppinger now realize it is far worse than that. The study will recommend some schools must close, others should merge, and – yes – some must be replaced with better buildings. By eliminating some schools, streamlining transportation, adjusting teacher load, as well as support personnel, the savings that will result will more than pay the entire cost of the study.

An anticipated five percent teacher’s raise is so overdue it is thankfully non-negotiable and a similar four percent raise for staff is so needed it is almost inhumane to have gone so long. The addition of art teachers, increasing counselors (who differ from social workers because they are so involved in academic progress) and an intensified effort towards graduates being “job ready” are now priority items but do we throw it all at “the dead horse?”

* * *

Again, I’m all about good money-after-bad but I also am adamant as I agree with Mike Compton. “We can’t just quit. Three years ago we went out and found Bryan Johnson. We believe he’s doing the things that will work but unless we get him the support he believes it will take, the things we didn’t even think about two years ago, the greatest disservice we could do is not support him.”

Coppinger sees the same thing. “When Alabama hired Nick Saban, and Tennessee hired Jeremy Pruitt, they knew they had ‘the guy’ but look at how both those universities have given the tools those coaches know it will take. When we first sat down with Bryan and began the discussion, his dream list was almost $90 million. His ask for $34 million is very reasonable when we really study it … and I think the taxpayers should know he took over $6 million and relocated it in the new budget where it will work much better.”

Coppinger and Compton, as the Chief of Staff, are tasked will the total county budget, of course, so to hear their lobby for the public schools has far more insight and diligence than my “dead horse” theory will ever embrace. “The worst thing anyone can do is nitpick this item and that item from the school budget because so much depends on the total,” Compton reasoned.

Johnson also pointed out that every school has different needs. “Signal Mountain Middle and High, as well as Thrasher Elementary, are doing well – not much change there – but Nolan Elementary needs two more teachers. We are going to provide that.”

My biggest concern in studying our county schools is the lack of oversight. There has to become a very transparent accountability by the school board and County Commission. It has been proven there is far more that meets the eye than what should assure an understandable tax increase. If the taxpayers only understand it beforehand, instead of being relegated as an afterthought, there would be a greater acceptance, a better understanding, and a stronger willingness to invest in our future.

Once again, I am now totally convinced we cannot do nothing. Each and every child is far too important than to be treated like some dead horse.

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