published Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Hamilton County: Vote on education money sparks Fred Skillern tirade

Commissioner Fred Skillern talks during a Hamilton County Commission meeting.
Commissioner Fred Skillern talks during a Hamilton County Commission meeting.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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HOW THEY VOTED

Motion to table PILOT vote until after March 2

FOR: Jim Fields, Joe Graham, Mitch McClure, Fred Skillern

AGAINST: Chester Bankston, Greg Beck, Tim Boyd, Larry Henry, Warren Mackey


Motion to rescind PILOT restrictions created last year

FOR: Bankston, Beck, Boyd, Henry, Mackey, McClure

AGAINST: Fields, Graham, Skillern

Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern went into a backroom tirade Wednesday after being on the losing end of another education vote.

"His ass is mine," Skillern said of schools Superintendent Rick Smith, suggesting that he had been instrumental in successfully ousting at least one former schools chief.

Sitting in the suite next to the commission's regular meeting room, Skillern scolded Commissioner Greg Beck for not voting Skillern's way on a resolution to give more than $1.1 million marked for education to the school system. Skillern opposed the motion.

"You let me down again," Skillern told Beck.

Last year, Beck voted no when commissioners decided to hold the money to make sure it is used for school capital projects. But on Wednesday, he was on the winning side as commissioners reversed course, voting 6-3 to return the money to schools with no strings attached.

The money comes from the county's PILOT agreements, deals used to help lure such businesses as Volkswagen to the area. Under PILOT -- which stands for payment-in-lieu-of-taxes -- businesses are allowed to pay only the schools portion of their property taxes for a certain number of years.

Last week, some commissioners attributed their shift on PILOT funds to trust in Smith, who was appointed in July.

"The money should be used to fix up schools," Skillern said Wednesday evening. "I think they messed up. You don't set those precedents. You don't give away money before budget time."

Earlier, Skillern remained silent before the vote, which he opposed along with Commissioners Jim Fields and Joe Graham. But moments after the meeting, he had plenty to say.

A Times Free Press reporter repeatedly walked past the mailroom's open door, waiting to ask commissioners for comment on the vote.

Skillern told Beck he and Smith had agreed to use the funds to replace Falling Water and Ganns Middle Valley schools.

"I had Smith agree to use that money at that time," Skillern said. "Rick Smith has lied to me, he's lied to me, and he's lied to me."

Smith said Wednesday he had made no agreements with Skillern on which schools would receive funding first and had never lied to him.

A facilities plan the school board approved last fall ranked the Falling Water replacement eighth on a list of 15 future school capital projects.

Smith acknowledged that Skillern has had a tough several weeks. Skillern's only son passed away in late January. A day later, Skillern's close friend, General Sessions Judge Bob Moon, died unexpectedly.

"I'm just disappointed Mr. Skillern is so upset," Smith said.

Skillern presented his ideas to county Board of Education Chairman Mike Evatt months ago about how to fund building projects at certain schools first, but Evatt said Wednesday he made no agreements with Skillern. Except at the recent funeral of Skillern's son, Evatt said he hasn't spoken to the commissioner in several months.

On Wednesday morning, Skillern also said, "Rick Smith's not running the school system. Mike Evatt's running the school system."

Evatt shrugged off that statement.

"What I take from his comments, I'm sure he's probably upset that the resolution passed," Evatt said.

Evatt said Smith is a capable leader who manages the school district well.

"You don't run a school system from sitting on the board," Evatt said. "That's not my job."

During his tirade, Skillern also alluded that he had the power to make or break a schools superintendent. During his conversation with Beck, and later with Graham and Commissioner Warren Mackey, Skillern twice mentioned Jesse Register, the former Hamilton County superintendent who now leads the Metro Nashville Public Schools.

"I was the board member believing Jesse Register was a crook and [I] ended up having seven votes," said Skillern, a former county school board member.

Commissioners also turned against Register's successor, Jim Scales, whose contract was bought out by the school board last year. Scales said he lost favor when he wouldn't bend to commissioners' wills.

On Wednesday, Skillern said releasing the PILOT funds, coupled with additional school budget and building requests, eventually would force the county to look at a tax increase, which he would refuse to support.

After Skillern's outburst, he said he voted according to his convictions.

"My thoughts are, that's a piecemeal budget," he said. "That should have been handled at budget time."

Graham, who first proposed the PILOT fund arrangement last year, called Wednesday's vote a "travesty." He attempted to table the vote until after a scheduled joint school board-commission meeting set for March 2. That effort failed 5-4, with commissioners Mitch McClure, Skillern, Graham and Fields voting to table.

It's unclear whether the joint meeting, which Mackey previously said would address upcoming budget issues, will take place.

"It's up in the air right now," Mackey said after the meeting and his mail room conversation with Skillern and others. "I've heard people need a breather."

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about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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