Roy Exum: No! To Selfishness

Wednesday, July 15, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It was a ‘heavy lift’ some years ago when a “discretionary spending allowance” was lifted away from each of the nine Hamilton County commissioners. It was no more than a “vote for me” ruse in each district. One of the best examples of it is to walk into Orchard Knob Elementary and see this ornate stone bench at the entrance. The name of the commissioner who gave it to the school is cut into its face like a stonecutter would do a monument and – candidly – it is little more than a “shrine to self.”

We have some wonderful commissioners - you bet we do - yet we have several others whose self-agendas, personal politics, and petty causes do not need to be paid with taxpayer monies. The argument is that “the taxpayers who live in my district want my personal representation” but the combine of county cash doesn’t work that way. All of the taxation money goes into one account and the mayor and the Commission dole it out accordingly to meet county need - not district need.

The better truth is this: The County Commission, as one unified entity, has rarely failed to meet a genuine need in our community. No, I am not talking about a “wish list,” some of which is sometimes easily confused from a “must list.” Under County Mayor Coppinger, the county departments do a masterful job of maintaining our county within budget. To arbitrarily squander $900,000 every year for any commissioner to nurture “favoritism” is unthinkable. We have a pandemic that has stricken an average of 1,000-plus Hamilton County residents per month since March and any step away from a commissioner’s sworn duty to all is the height of irresponsible selfishness.

COVID-19 is such an unprecedented tragedy so horrible not one county commissioner can tell us where we will be 90 days from now. That’s because nobody else the world over can predict that either. To cut our coffers by a pinch under $1 million every year is most unwise and to switch from “team play” to “look at me” is reprehensible in times such as these. This should never happen again.

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The Hamilton County School Board has never been on such a slippery slope. Yet when the board meets tomorrow night, there is expected to be a moment to sign some sort of “letter of intent” to buy the former Sears building, and the accompanying parking lot, at twice the price that was first proposed three months ago. In most cases where there is a “letter of intent,” if either side backs away there is a default fee involved. The school board has no business whatsoever taking part in such an idiotic move because the schools will definitely default.

Like it or not, COVID and common sense is going to dictate what the school board must decide in the next year and as we pluck thoughts from the Tree of Knowledge, I think it is far more prudent to look at what is already in the basket. Right now, the county has far better building sites available for far less money.

When the school board let slip it was considering buying the former Sears building at Northgate Shopping Mall for approximately $3.4 million in April, the property was quickly swooped up by clever developers Bassam Issa and John Woods, who soon informed us that they had paid $3.5 million for the Sears section, but that other expenses had moved the overall asking price to $6.4 million. Hello?

It seems Issa and Woods claimed add-on costs included having to buy a 20 percent interest from CBL & Associates that brought their property to $4,375,000. The pair of opportunistic dandies then said there were also $300,000 in closing and interest expenses, and $650,000 to secure all the parking rights for the section near the old Sears. That brought the cost to $5,325,000. Add their $1.1 million profit … for three months of real hard and strenuous work … and the new price goes from $3.4 to $6.4 million – what a buy at twice as much, huh?

As the school board still balks and COVID cases rise, the easy move on the board game is to tell Issa and Woods there is no longer any interest. That would be the truth. Game over. The two, thought to be slick schemers by the Court of Public Opinion, are left holding the bag. You are mighty right they want a letter of intent to hold over the school board. Without that letter of intent, Issa and Woods are left with what is politely called an albatross. That’s right, nobody from here to Phoenix would give $6.4 million for the former Sears in a gravely wounded shopping center.

Fret not! Issa and Woods bet on quick money and lost. The school board had nothing to do with the “quick cash” scheme and it owes not a dime for their failed cunning. Don’t you see … the game of “playing nice” is over. Play by their rules and tell ‘em you may sniff around a year from now but by then there will be much better properties in much better locations and Northgate Mall will be lucky to keep the lights on.  

Look at CBL, the shopping center empire that the Lebovitz family built in Chattanooga.  The Lebovitz are wonderful people but the world of Amazon has swept them by. The entire community, and Wall Street as well, joins them in the fear their cash will not last the rest of the year, but it is what it is. Further, if the school board signs a letter of intent, the odds are overwhelming Hamilton County will never be able to swing the deal and the result will be no more than throwing good money after bad.

The reason the school board will never buy the Northgate albatross is - let’s be real honest -because our public school system is on the brink of disaster. The hottest subject in the history of education is COVID-19 and its ramifications. Google any city you want, right now, and query “when do schools open?” Mothers and fathers all across America are paralyzed with fear their child will bring the virus unknowingly home from school. Scoff if you will, but there is a huge wave of “home school” coming. In some cities certain neighborhoods are already organizing home school classes in local churches that use their Sunday School facilities only on Sundays.

There are more far-reaching reasons than the virus. Among them: their children can’t read at age level. Discipline, bullying, and other behaviors are not being fully addressed in the public schools. Teachers, harassed by poor supervisors, mounds of meaningless paperwork, cafeteria duty, bus duty, hall duty … can be paid more money with better hours and far less stress by home schooled neighborhoods. Home schooling has far less meaningless oversight than Hamilton County public schools do and don’t think families from miles around would not want to apply.

The public is fed up with what public education's returns as results. Hamilton County is paid in state funds according to the number of students present each day. There are roughly 43,000 on the rolls but with the coronavirus numbers scaling to the highest numbers ever right now, you ain’t gotta’ be book-smart to see that a month from now, school attendance will be decimated. I can guarantee it.

So, with rumors swirling that we may go back into quarantine, that at the end of this month the $700 unemployment stipend will end, and the virus will stay ever relentless, for the school board to sign any letter of intent is absolutely stupid. Each board member’s pledge must be to not spend a dime. The district paid teachers full salary when the Hamilton County Schools were closed in the spring, but what happens when the kids stay home next month?

The school board better start thinking realistically. And COVID is the first “real” you’ll find.

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