published Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Democrat challenges Hamilton County on school funding


by Cliff Hightower

Paul Smith, the new chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, gave a tongue-lashing to county commissioners Monday, saying they need to fully fund Hamilton County schools and quit playing with children’s education.

Smith told members of the JFK Club, an arm of the Democratic Party, that the County Commission is robbing the Board of Education and “stealing the little children’s money.”

“They need to decide if they want to be a school board member or a county commissioner,” Smith said during a 40-minute speech.

The reaction from county commissioners was immediate. Commissioner Fred Skillern, reached by phone before the speech, said he did not have a lot to say about Smith’s shots at the nine-member commission.

“That’s Paul Smith, chairman of the Democratic Party,” Skillern said. “We now have seven Republicans on the County Commission. The people have spoken. That’s the only comment I have to say.”

Smith criticized how commissioners accrue discretionary money, fund the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce and plan to take money meant for the Hamilton County Schools’ general fund and use it for capital projects instead.

He called the commissioners’ discretionary money a “slush fund” that they disperse every year “as nine Santa Clauses.”

“They limit the school board funding and then disperse the funds, making themselves look good for political purposes,” Smith said.

Each year commissioners get $100,000 to spend on projects of their choosing.

In February, commissioners voted to seize control of millions of dollars of property-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, money that previously went to Hamilton County Schools and helped pay general fund expenses. The PILOT money is from companies like Volkswagen coming into the county.

The loss of PILOT money swelled the schools’ deficit, and administrators have since said they plan to make cuts to meet a $14.3 million shortfall in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

TALKING POINTS

Hamilton Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith fired off several key points during his speech Monday. They included:

  • Hamilton County commissioner need to turn over their discretionary funds to the Hamilton County Board of Education.

  • Commissioners need to give payment-in-lieu-of-taxes revenues back to Hamilton County Schools.

  • Chattanooga-Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce needs to privatize.

  • Wealthy local businesses such as Volkswagen and BlueCross BlueShield need to “step up” in paying more fees for a privatized Chamber of Commerce.

County Commission Chairman Larry Henry rebutted Smith’s comments Monday, saying the county received an opinion from the state attorney general that it was constitutionally allowable to take the money. He said the commission wants to use the money to build schools.

“No one is taking money from the children,” he said.

He also defended the commissioners’ discretionary money, saying most of it was spent on technology and education purposes that the schools themselves could not afford.

“Who would know better than the commissioners on what the money needs to be used for in their district?” he asked.

Commissioners Warren Mackey and Greg Beck were in the audience during the speech. Afterward, they had mixed reactions, especially about discretionary funds.

“He kind of demonized it, saying we were taking candy from the kids,” Mackey said.

But Mackey said commissioners spend a majority of the money on education.

Beck agreed. But he said that at the end of the day the commission will let the Hamilton County school board regain control of the PILOT money.

“I think it will be released because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Contact Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CliffHightower.

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