Roy Exum: He's Yet To Earn It

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

For over a half-century I’ve been in the news business and, for the life of me, I have never known of a Fortune 500 company, or of a professional or college athletics program, or any circus the world over, that issued a bonafide press release revealing that the CEO or head coach’s contract would be the first item of business at the next board meeting. The reason it has never happened is because every CEO and coach in any sport is smart enough to never give the common-sense crowd time enough to – let me be candid – “stop stupid.”

On Feb. 4 the Hamilton County Department of Education issued a release that Superintendent Bryan Johnson’s $207,000 contract – now valid through July 2021 – would be “the first item on the agenda” at the School Board’s February (20) meeting.

The very next day Dr. Johnson proposed an immediate 2.5 pay increase for the teachers in a State of the Schools show, this per Board approval of course. Yet since then, a poll that appears on, found that 77 percent of over 2,300 who responded declared there should be no contract extension, nor any new contract written. The overwhelming reason that about the same percentage of the Hamilton County taxpayers feel the same is because Dr. Johnson has not earned it. Only six months ago the hiring of over 150 employees blew up in Johnson’s face and it took a $7 million emergency dip into the school reserves fund to cover his costly blunder.

When you raid your reserves, the money doesn’t have a way to come back. What’s bigger in this instance, the money doesn’t belong to the schools, it doesn’t belong to the County Commission who begrudgingly went along with the phoopah, it belongs to the taxpayers who entrust its use to those they elect. There can be no doubt it was used to cover Dr. Johnson’s colossal error, and let’s not forget those same 150 additional employees will now appear on every budget forthwith.

That said, Dr. Johnson most certainly has not earned the right to any added compensation but, again with that in the open, in less than two weeks your elected School Board will very predictably approve a healthy new four-year contract that has actually been in the hush since New Year’s Day. Board approval is easy because the School Board has no money. The reason for that is because the county’s commissioners ain’t about to let the School Board anywhere near the cash register – on the School Board there is no accountability because the group is toothless. On the County Commission there most certainly is because every penny they appropriate belongs to the people of Hamilton County.

What’s more, there hasn’t been a month in the last dozen that the superintendent has not been relentless in chasing money and is viewed by the commissioners with scant respect. He was so cocksure a $34 million tax increase would fly over the summer he went out and hired all the extra personnel. There was no way a tax increase would ever happen – the taxpayers were going nuts -- so when it went dead, the panicked gambler quickly altered the FY2020 budget, sliding in all the mew hires in the budget where the not-so-amused County Commission was led to believe the $7 million line item was for a 2.5 pay increase for the teachers and thusly approved. Then the “Super” craftily juked the school reserve fund for $7 million, giving the teachers a one-time bonus instead of the promised raise, saying the cash would be similar to a 2.5 salary increase. (The man did not major in math.)

At the same time in August, a “white privilege” bonfire erupted, with one teacher even standing in front of her peers to apologize for being white. The incident was embarrassing to the entire community and Dr. Johnson’s credibility, first believed “promising,” suffered a tragic blow. The Hamilton County Commissioners, furious over such poor judgement, summoned the superintendent twice. To this day they remember he never showed.

More recently, a zany wheel tax idea believed to be hatched by the shady UnifiEd non-profit but with HCDE fingerprints all over it, never got past the commission’s dais yet – what’s this? -- now the School Board mistakenly believes it has a full head of steam. After the board votes by a predictable 7-2 count on Feb. 20 to present the commission with the charge of funding a new four-year contract for the Super, the notion here is the County Commission will instruct the School Board to take that disappointing and actually insulting contract and stick it in one ear until it emerges from the other.

The Commission has no choice but to can the contract and, privately, there are some of them who would like to can the Super. The public sentiment is most could now care less about public education. It has become, quite frankly, a whiny nuisance in the public eye. What Department of Education folks cannot seem to grasp is that the general population is tired of the belly-aching, the relentless greed, the fact over half the students cannot read at grade level, the rampant discipline problem, and the fact the district’s average ACT is under 20.

Closer to home, people in every county community are very aware public education costs are draining the other county services – with no tax money in a dozen years – to ‘go without’ in a way that all 350,000 of us can now tell. Trust me on this: the bloom is off the rose. Read this email:

* * *
I am confused. According to the state’s (TN Dept. of Education) Report card, I find that at The Howard School in Chattanooga, it is reported just 5.1 percent of the students are at or above grade level. The school’s Academic Achievement score (0 to 4 being the highest) is zero.

It is was also reported that 43.7 percent of The Howard School students are chronically absent, that 18.1 percent are serving out-of-school suspensions, 16.6 are on in-school suspensions and 3.5 percent have been expelled. The school’s average ACT score is 15.1 (passing is 17).  With all of this, The Howard School has a 71.1 graduation rate and the principal, LeAndrea Ware, was chosen as The Principal of the Year in the State of Tennessee.

What am I missing?

* * *

Dr. Johnson has moved his contract review to the first item on the School Board agenda for next week because he knows if it is buried until later he ain’t got a cut dog’s chance of feathering his nest for quite a while. You see, at the next monthly meeting in March the final version of the half-million-dollar study of the school’s facility report will be delivered. Both the School Board and the County Commissions of the past have ignored the deferred maintenance needs for so long it's old enough to have grandchildren. The first whiff of the study was $1.3 billion (with a ‘b’). The immediate needs are overwhelming. The final report will be darn-near fatal.

Here's one last morsel: If he’s considered by the School Board as such a prize, remember “there ain’t never been a horse that can’t be rode, or a cowboy who can’t he throwed.” If somebody else wants Bryan Johnson enough to pay out his contract, it’s our blessing. The guy’s okay, friendly and trying, but he’s “average” by the experts. Let him go, help him pack, but I’ll guarantee the next to follow will make you forget all about him. I guarantee it.

The School Board? It will have no say in what happens next. Why we’ve even got such a ‘yes chorus’ is a mystery to me. All egos aside, the County Commission will listen carefully to what County Mayor Jim Coppinger may say, but the strong advice would be for Superintendent Johnson to not show up. He’s already the highest-paid employee in Hamilton County, and, after the School Board approves his quest for a new contract in the very face of the upcoming facilities fiasco, and an understandably incensed County Commission squelches it, it’s my bet the chickens will still come home to roost.

This foolishness ain’t right.

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