Roy Exum: HCDE’s Hollow Victory

Wednesday, August 14, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Sometime today the Hamilton County Department of Education officials claim they will offer a raving report that students’ grades show the uptake that we have patiently and prayerfully wished for. I think it's great, and I am downright proud of any achievement. But there is a noticeable shallow sound in the drum line. Just seven days ago a five percent raise was denied the very ones most responsible for any good news that comes out of our maligned public school system. 

Get this right. The teachers are solely responsible for any grades, good or bad, and last Wednesday, on two separate votes, the County Commissioners failed in two different tax increase tries – furious that the No.1 request in the county’s FY2019-20 budget was pitched aside like barn scatter.

A nine-person vote aligned perfectly and available for our teachers was the first budget item bounced out of a revised – but  balanced -- new budget.

The County Commission members were as disgusted and disappointed with the Department of Education as any of the parents of 44,000 children who have no choice 

Worse, that’s when we learned the $8 million already set aside for the teachers’ salary increase was highjacked so that Superintendent Bryan Johnson could – and already has – hire an additional 181 full-time employees. The Department of Education has not a dollar in reserves to pay these new hires. So, in a move I hope somebody actually thinks was smart, Johnson weaseled the 181 jobs onto this year’s budget instead of rewarding our longtime and long-suffering teachers.

Knowing he could not afford to grant a $10 million call to fund the teachers' raises, he came with a one-time “bonus.” This money, coming from the schools’ rainy day fund, will not cost the taxpayers since it is already on hand. But just 12 months from now, the teachers will once again be in the budget line and their yearly salary will be pledged before the budget request.

I know the only thing worse than being offered contract renewal and a salary raise in the same week is accepting it. During the budget talks, there was some discussion if the teachers would do just as well with a 2½ percent and am I the only one who blanched? I seriously believe our teachers have been willfully abused since the county took over the city schools in 1971.

If anyone dares to see what has been allowed to take place in the last 30 years with our teachers, it is nothing short of a mockery against those who teach our children. They are horribly over-worked, many rushing home to feed the children before settling in at the kitchen table, and they are the ones who have to listen to the insults the private schools hurl like a box of over-ripe tomatoes.

The biggest threat to public education – and to those who teach in the poorly-performing schools – is Governor Bill Lee’s full-speed ahead on his voucher program. As of now both Chattanooga and Knoxville have opted out of the program. The raw truth is public schools cannot compete and families will get their teaching and lessons where there is huge demand. 

With public education so deep in the well in Hamilton County, I have been “guaranteed” by the families of home-schooled kids and others who are being taught outside the county school system those parents are ready to stand in line for voucher money

When Governor Lee initiated preliminary voucher talks, Hamilton County officials are accused of “breaking the law, using state money to hinder a child.” It virtually slaughters my soul when I see a kid who is going to have to spend a lot of time on Life’s highway alone before he amounts to much, but given time I have seen it proven time and time again: that’s how true champions are made. 

I am also reminded that if you have a 15-minute block of time - before some airplane leaves or your subject’s speech at the Wednesday night Mens Group - the trick for instant capture of a truly great man or woman is plumb easy.

I would lean across my tattered reporter’s satchel to innocently ask, “Who is the greatest teacher you ever had?” Not a one would not, nor could not, nor ever pause for over 15 seconds The answers, that begin with ceaseless admiration, before they were quiver-tipped with love, all come back to the vision of what any good reporter will have finally brought nurtured out.. “I loved (coach) more than anyone who ever lived … ´

Good grades are the mark of great teachers – but I’ve never met any student, who eventually earned greatness …  who cited an algebra truth, or who quoted a movie, a song, a screenplay, or a poem or… who could equal the greatness of the teacher. As frail and gentle as she may well be who showed the path of where they had always met their mettle and were thus taught who they would become.


* * *

PLEASE, A CORECTION – In Tuesday’s editions of The Chattanoogan, I deeply regret my inability to learn the Chattanooga Public Library does – in fact – issue a free library card to every student in our Hamilton County Department of Education system.

I deeply apologize, and not only should I have known better, I am equally to blame for my inability to find on the library’s website that the leadership of the Chattanooga Public Library does as much for true philanthropy as almost any organization in our city.

Since my article appeared, I believe we are nearing the point where we can help, enrich, and love those homeless who find their greatest hopes and joys are among the millions of volumes, the sensational kindness of the state and, as they watch the children play, will soon notice one ember … they will notice one ember aglow … and soon learn to dance again.

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