Roy Exum: Our Schools Looming Repair Cost

Sunday, June 9, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The story, so rich when told in the Southern tongue, is alleged to have happened in a small town where a potential car buyer, his voice thick in accent, asked the salesman if the financing he had just been offered was “a baboon note?” The salesman, not understanding the question, counters, “Sir, do you mean a balloon note of some kind?” The customer, albeit nonplused, replied, “No, I’m talking about a baboon note … that’s one where the big monkey jumps out and gets you at the end.” 

As comical as it may well seem, I fear many of those who are in favor of a 34-cent tax increase for education in Hamilton County’s FY2020 budget are unaware of the awaiting “baboon” the taxpayers of Hamilton County will soon have little choice but to wrestle.

It will be just days after the County Commission votes on a proposed tax increase on June 26. I’m begging the question: What are we going to do when the bigger public schools tsunami hits, especially after I have been whispered it will come close to equaling, or even exceeding, the record-setting $433 million already proposed for the entire public school operation next year?

Those who have kept up with what the cash-eating dragon our public  schools have become may recall that in December of 2018 “somebody” under the auspices of the school board – who else? – cut a $500,000 deal with Florida-based MGT Consulting to “assess the condition of the district's facilities and develop a strategic plan for capital projects and maintenance.”

Hamilton County Schools, that is pounding the gavel hard in favor of an already questionable $34 million tax raise to complement its budgetary ask of $443 million, has already spent a half-million dollars to MGT in the hopes the preliminary figures would already be in hand and preliminary steps towards a solution could be part of the current budget consideration.

But … no … in the first week of that infamous class you’ll remember as “Deception by Design,” you’ll will always recall Rule No. 1 in any tax increase is to avoid any additional ticks and fleas at all costs. There is the belief that when it became obvious the public schools were determined to push for a tax increase, the MGT bunch was relieved of its first deadline, instead honoring the alleged left-handed suggestion to delay the report.

The central office reasoning, this in the way cash grabbers think, was allegedly to stall the report until after the “nine blind mice” on the County Commission could study the 34-cent tax increase objectively, and not allow the pesky deferred maintenance – the real baboon-in-the-room -- to influence what they are led to believe “is best for our children.”

While I am a strong advocate of “one step at a time" and “haste makes waste,” I feel even more strongly that if our county commissioners are facing a big decision just weeks from now, and County Mayor Jim Coppinger can hold a grip-and-grin press conference touting the forthcoming tax increase, we are fixing to look like Tennessee hayseeds when the wool is being pulled over our eyes.

We’ve fronted half-a-million in arguably frivolous money to a consultant, when we already have our own people who know more about our horribly neglected schoolhouses, but in July when the expensive report is presented, is the plan to sit silently and blink?

It is my personal belief that it is imperative for any diligent steward to focus not so much at where a tax increase will find us at the end of June … but consider the total state of public education – the whole picture – of where the taxpayers are going to be when the rest of the cards are face up?

I am assured $325M won’t even leave a scratch mark on the MGT Report. And that is literally a guarantee. When MGT salesman Joe Clark met with the school board last December, he emphasized his Florida company has no ulterior motive, that MGT Consulting portends to be strictly an "objective third party player."

But then he promised – remember, this is six months ago -- "The detail we are going to get into is going to generate a big number," he told the school board. How big a number? “I've never met a district who has a big enough checkbook to address everything we find."

Both the county mayor and the school superintendent seem to already know what’s coming. So, let’s call it like we see it -- to agonize over comparative pocket change less than a month before a facilities recommendation that will eclipse the school’s entire FY2020 budget ($443 million) is deceptive to the taxpayers, and yet another devastating blow to the HCDE for “knowing but not telling.”

I’ll admit: It just may be me but I sense there is a serious trust issue developing and, before this saga ends, I suspect a bunch of the pretenders who rallied behind Coppinger’s ill-advised press conference plea on Wednesday will become weak in the knee when the many-millions pep rally is staged later this summer.

Remember: the taxpayer’s ante was $500,000 for just the facilities report. That’s spent money with nary a nail driven towards our deferred maintenance. I’ve been against the tax increase because we have no proof an 11-percent budget increase over the last five years has worked, this against mounting suspicion it has not. The superintendent begs for the public’s trust but, just like test scores, that is a commodity that is earned. As a record budget request of $443 million is batted about, it appears the art of achievement still cannot be bought.

* * *

WHILE WE ARE AT IT – There is a growing belief that Superintendent Johnson and elected school board member Jenny Hill actively took part in blocking Governor Bill Lee’s voucher program in Hamilton County. There is a belief in some quarters for each to do so was illegal and, according to state and federal laws, violated the rights of the parents/guardians who opt to send their school-age children to private schools instead of the public schools.

 It is believed that due to a lack of discipline and poor testing – among other things -- there are 25 percent of school-age in Hamilton County who attend private schools instead of the public schools. Due in part to Johnson and Hill, Hamilton County was omitted from the Governor’s program, but its taxpayers were not forgiven nor excused from their portion of state taxes.

The Governor’s program promotes the use of school vouchers, which is to say the taxed money normally allocated to the public schools on a per child basis, would be deducted from the total amount allotted to public schools and instead routed – per child – to the various private schools to lessen the taxpayer’s individual tuition costs.

You can expect a number of lawsuits being filed across the state because such discrimination towards the taxpayers is blatantly wrong.

It costs a touch over $10,000 per child for public education. That is for 43,000 children in Hamilton County. But if a discriminatory law suit were filed on the behalf of the 25 percent who opt for private schools and the tuition money was routed appropriately to the privates rather than the publics, it would be devastating to public education.

Not only would the cost per student rise in public schools, the public schools would take a major financial loss. Many expenses in a public school are fixed, and if the voucher program were suddenly available, a good number of additional families are anticipated to join those dissatisfied with Hamilton County’s public schools.

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