Are There Too Many Hamilton County Schools? - And Response

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Two recent articles reveal a great deal about the present state of local public education. Mixing and matching information and reading between the lines reveals even more.

First, there is that loooonnnngg list of Top Hamilton County Schools Salaries 2019. That nearly incredible list covers only salaries from $70,000 and up, and includes 290 different individuals -- approaching $30,000,000 total. Sixty-two of those salaries are above $100,000. There are even 25 teachers on the list, albeit near the bottom end of it. And there are 19 ROTC instructors, making more money than the teachers. Why, and whatever for?

Considering that the median household income in our county was only $51,300 in 2017, it’s apparent that the administrators in our school system represent the real elite, the real royalty around here.

Then there is the article on 2019 Hamilton County School Enrollment, with a list of individual school names/locations. That list is 83 lines long, and includes several line items (schools of some sort) that I know nothing about. Using a round number of 80 public school locations in the county, and mixing in various other readily available numbers, I came to some distinct conclusions.

First, there are nominally 44,000 public school students in the county. That's an average of 550 students for each of the 80 (nominal) schools in the county. Some of the 80 schools on the list have as many students as that average number; a very few schools are significantly larger, but most locations have less than the average 550 students.

Second, Hamilton County has 542 square miles of land area. Divided by 80 schools, that's an average of one school for every seven square miles in the county. If those 80 school properties were evenly distributed across the county, they'd be less than three miles apart. Every person in Hamilton County would live within two miles of one school or another.

Growing up in a very small town in central Indiana, I went to a small school. Westfield was exactly one mile square, in the center of a rural (farming) township and school district that covered 56 square miles. Our township schools (from 1950 to 1965) occupied one long conglomerated building that included elementary, junior high, and high schools – the very classrooms my parents had occupied. There were around 650 students total, and we all shared all of the school facilities – cafeteria, auditorium, shop, gymnasium, playground, baseball and football fields (only one of each). Even then I recognized the entire setup was a very small operation when compared to the county seat, and especially relative to big Indianapolis just a few miles south of us. But it was our school, essentially locally owned and locally operated. The teachers were our neighbors; we saw them on the streets, in the stores, and in church.

Living now in Lookout Valley on the west side of Chattanooga, I immediately looked up the new numbers for the schools that are near to me. Lookout Valley Elementary has only 289 students listed; the combined middle and high schools have only 346 – that’s two absolutely separate, independent, and completely equipped school locations having a total population less than the small Hoosier school system that I attended long ago. In the present context, that means both of the schools here in Lookout Valley are also well below the average county school population.

Fifty-plus years ago, "consolidation" was the big word in schools. Various small-town and isolated country schools were being consolidated, physically combined in favor of the economies of scale wherein 1,000 or more students could be transported to and accommodated in a single larger and better equipped physical plant. That was in large rural counties, and some students had to ride buses for 10 or more miles each way. No, consolidation wasn't always greeted kindly by its constituents/victims, but it was evidently the thing to do at the time. 

Now, as I look at the latest published list of local schools, I have to wonder what's going on right here, right now. The HCDE Web site lists 23 separate high schools, 25 middle schools, and 43 distinct elementary schools. And I have to wonder, I have to ask ... Is it maybe possible that Hamilton County simply has too many schools?

We already know that there are way too many non-teaching employees in the school system, and we can see that all of the really grossly excessively high salaries are strictly for non-teaching positions. But how about the possibility that there are also too many individual school properties? After all, every separate school location requires the same basic physical plant setup, the same utilities, the same office(s) and administrative and support personnel, the same playgrounds, ball fields, parking lots, utilities, maintenance personnel and machinery, etc. as every other school requires.

Think of all the different auditoriums, gymnasiums, baseball fields, football fields, running tracks, and other facilities that are duplicated time after time after time across this one overtaxed county. Then we continually hear from friends of this school and that school and the other school that "we don't have what So-and-so has; we deserve the same facilities that Such-and-such has; we want our fair share!" (Yeah, there’s one of those letters to the editor posted right now.)

Then, of course, if and whenever So-and-so does get a new gymnasium or ball field or auditorium or whatever, it's immediately deemed inferior to Such-and-such's facility, or else it's thought to be better than What's-his-name's setup, and even more folks become dissatisfied with what they have – with what the taxpayers have bought for them.

Does Hamilton County really need 23 separate and independent (and competitive!) high schools? What would be the economic savings if the number of high schools was reduced to, say, just 10 large consolidated setups? Oh, the crying would be horrendous, and the complaints would be off the scale. Why, Johnny has to ride a bus for 20 minutes to get to that new school! But how many students in Hamilton County already ride a bus for longer than 20 minutes, to get to schools that are farther than that from home?

My question right here, right now, is simple: Are there too many individual school plants in Hamilton County? Are 23 different high school locations really necessary? Are 43 independent elementary schools really necessary? Is the present arrangement involving some 80 total school properties anywhere close to being reasonable, is it even necessary, let alone optimal? Isn't there room for reduction in the number of physical plants, and wouldn't there be significant economic benefits from doing so? Among other things, the list of 74 principals and 82 assistant principals alone could be cut way down.

I know, the initial change could be exorbitantly expensive. Even if excessive expense wasn't absolutely necessary, the school leaders could easily make it so, demanding Cadillac luxury instead of Chevrolet utility. But if, as is claimed, so many school buildings are presently only fit for demolition, then why not combine their students into fewer buildings at fewer locations? The county certainly owns plenty of property for the purpose, and not every existing school building is (yet, anyway) a rotting pile of moldy, vermin-infested waste.

It's just a thought. It's surely a thought that appeals to many people, particularly those of us who are regarded as mere cash cows and must continually pay higher and higher taxes that seem to produce lower and lower results. The self-styled educators, of course, will have all sorts of arguments against such a logical proposal. And the politicians who so much enjoy spending other people's money ... well, we know who they are, don't we?

Oh, by the way, the little local and locally-run Indiana school system that I attended 60 and 70 years ago? Watch the basketball film Hoosiers to see some identical buildings. Three stories of plain brick was common back then. Simple and humble and out-of-date though our school was, I got four solid years of high school mathematics (all in the same room, all with the same teacher), four years of English, two years of Spanish, one year each of biology, chemistry, and physics (all three sciences in the same single laboratory/classroom), mechanical drawing, and typing, plus all of the mundane and mandatory classes such as health, general business, civics, history, and physical education. We were offered Latin, art, music, home ec, driver's ed, and shop classes every year, too, plus all the ordinary sports, extracurricular marching band and orchestra and chorus, for those who had the ability, interest, and time for them. And all of that honest education got crammed into the nine months between Labor Day and Memorial Day, with no snow days unless there was an absolute blizzard. Summer was a true, genuine, blessed three months long.

But, I'm told, that was then and this is now. And we all know things just aren't that way any more. Since what was then really worked, and what is now doesn’t seem to work for most students, maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe it's time to eliminate half of the school facilities in our county, and expand the rest of them to a useful and economical size.  Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Larry Cloud
Lookout Valley

* * * 

In reference to your comment about ROTC {actually JROTC} instructors in Hamilton County Schools: “And there are 19 ROTC instructors, making more money than the teachers.   Why, and whatever for?"

More research is necessary on your part before you jump to conclusions about how much our JROTC instructors are paid.  What the school district actually pays these individuals is the difference between what they receive in their military retirement and what they would receive if they were recalled to active duty.  In the case of the US Army, appropriate here since I believe the majority of our programs are Army, “School districts employing JROTC instructors must pay the MIP (Minimum Instructor Pay – the difference explained above} and guarantee a 10, 11, or 12 month contract.  The Army reimburses the school one half of the calculated MIP." (quoted from usarmyjrotc.com)

In addition to that, the JROTC programs are absolutely some of the best programs in our schools for the development of character, accountability, self-confidence, and leadership. As a teacher, I was in an outstanding position to make that observation. The growth of students in the ROTC program between their freshman and senior years cannot be overstated, and the vast majority of them attribute a large part of that to their experiences in ROTC. Ask some of them.

I can’t dispute your opinion on the number of schools or number of district level administration personnel. As far as community response to consolidation of schools is concerned, you won’t have to go far to get opinions – as I recall, parents and/or school personnel at Lookout Mountain Elementary were some of the loudest voices criticizing the recent study recommending just that in many locations across the district.

Our JROTC programs provide more “bang for the buck” than just about anything I can think of in the school district. What the district pays our instructors is in no way a problem.

Don Brock
Harrison



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