published Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Cook: Two plus two is zero

When I think of 21st century education, one name immediately rises above all others.

Fred Skillern.

(That's not who you were thinking of?)

Last month, Skillern, the longtime Soddy-Daisy politician and businessman, was unanimously elected chairman of the Hamilton County Commission, which therefore makes him one of the most powerful men in local education. Why? Because he leads the body that controls the purse strings.

"No sir," he said, disagreeing. "A chairman has no other authority than assigning committees, and I've already assigned them."

Every dime spent on education must be first approved by the County Commission, over which Skillern presides. The Department of Education crafts its own budget, but it is the commission that approves it.

Lest we forget, it was Skillern, a former school board member, who last year suggested he was responsible for the ouster of a former superintendent -- "I was the board member believing Jesse Register was a crook and [I] ended up having seven votes" -- while also cursing current Superintendent Rick Smith.

"His ass is mine," Skillern had said.

Why not turn the tables? Instead of Skillern and the commission, let's put budgetary power into the hands of the school board.

"I think it's a great idea," said school board member Donna Horn. "We don't have control. We have our hands tied behind our backs. We are at their mercy."

Give the school board power to tax. Make them the body to which Smith requests funds. That way, you the citizen can hold them directly accountable for school funding.

"No sir. I would never support that," Skillern said. "You've got to have more checks and balances than one body."

Skillern's philosophy is that money is best spent directly on kids. A bloated central office takes too much money away from county classrooms and a school board won't provide the watchdog oversight the commission currently does.

"The further the money gets from the child, the less supportive I am," he said. "If you'll notice on my discretionary money, it's spent basically on what the school system doesn't supply for the schools."

Ahh, discretionary funding. Each year, commissioners get $100,000 apiece to spend as they see fit in their community. Band uniforms, new concession stands, books in the library, computers in the classrooms.

And next week, they'll vote whether to post all discretionary spending online.

"A large portion of it is schools," Skillern said.

(This, children, is called irony. Tragic, tragic irony.)

Why? Because schools are poorly funded because commissioners won't fund a school system they see as bloated and inefficient ... so they use their own discretionary money to fund a handful of programs that are impoverished ... and they're underfunded because commissioners won't fund a school budget they see as bloated and inefficient.

Dizzying, isn't it?

"I have worked and spent and tried to buy pro-lithium boards," Skillern said of schools in his district. "I hadn't even got all those boards bought for all of my schools, and now [Central Office is] coming up saying they want another kind of board now."

Skillern was referring to Promethean boards. And yes, technology is constantly changing.

Maybe such discretionary money is a pseudo-campaign fund, a blank check of taxpayer dollars that commissioners use to fund high-profile projects that in turn garner popularity and votes.

Maybe it's also a double standard: the county commission can spend money, but not trust the school board to do the same.

And maybe if such discretionary spending were to cease, and the money put back into the general fund, all those community projects would remain underfunded.

"I'm telling you, if discretionary funding goes away, kids are the losers, the community is the loser, and the non-profit is the loser," commissioner Tim Boyd said.

But that's not the worst part.

The worst part is that this never ends.

Like some civil war, the commission and school board and Central Office will continue to go round and round, arguing over money, efficiency and policy.

To borrow words from Boyd: Our kids lose in the process.

"If me spending most of my [discretionary] money on education makes me anti-education, then I plead guilty," said Skillern.

OK.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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inquiringmind said...

Mr. Skillern and Mr. Cook have made some incisive observations about the school system. I think it is very evident that the school board is not capable of faithfully acquiring and spending money for schools. You just have to walk into a school and see heat or AC turned on and it is so hot or cold windows are open. You can look at the internal politics of principal assignment and selection. Why does the school board spend money on "portable classrooms" that lead to disruption of the flow of the day and remove time from the educational process when an initial intelligent assessment of size and allowing for future growth would let the architect design schools capable of accommodating growth?

I know highly educated and effective teachers who can teach a number of subjects, math, science, history who ask the central office, "where is your need," so they can take the appropriate qualifying exam for certification. They are told go choose and take an exam first, then come back and we will see if we can use you. The central office works against bringing capable, highly qualified persons into the system. Why? Are they intimidated by highly educated teachers? Is that the kind of central office we want to put in charge of our school money?

I agree with Mr. Cook we have a problem that the schools are in bad shape, I'm not sure it is totally a funding problem as much as a management problem, a problem with higher education and a problem with the perception of the electorate.

I will observe teachers nation-wide are underpaid relative to the responsibility we impose upon them. However, they are often under-educated, having arts degrees from highly insular programs that do more to protect their own than invite innovation. Whether this is a chicken and egg issue I don't know.

Mr. Skillern is responding to his constituents, something to be thankful about. I do not know how the electorate can be educated to see they need to pay taxes for the public good. In the time i've known Mr. Skillern I do not always agree with some of his positions. But, he is honest, dedicated and I'd trust him with my tax money, and to spend more to improve the schools, something he might do if he could be assured it is spent well.

We do not have to look far into our Chattanooga past to see where we had corrupt county commissioners, corrupt school board members and corrupt law enforcement that milked the public treasury. You can trust Mr. Skillern with your money even if he is a little misery with it.

October 9, 2013 at 8:34 a.m.
AndrewLohr said...

Trouble with school funding is they get paid whether people like their product or not, so they lack incentive to offer what we want. So divide the money among the parents and let us choose whatever schooling we want: home, private, local public, other public, charter, college if a child can get in...when the schools have to compete for students, diversity and quality will improve. Restaurants keep improving to gain and keep customers. Put schools under the same pressure and they'll improve.

Or as a modest step, since it costs Rick Smith about $10,000 per year to educate a child, let Mr Skillern tell Mr Smith to pay anyone who leaves the system $5,000 per year. That leaves more dollars per student inside the system if the tax laws get rewritten to make it so, while improving diversity and competition outside it.

October 9, 2013 at 2:19 p.m.
mookifur said...

On Sept. 11, I wrote a column for The Wilson Post in Lebanon, Tenn., on this very subject. If you would like to read it, here's a link http://bit.ly/18V7PZ0. Feel free to leave a comment. If you want to read more of my writings, head over here http://bit.ly/17NBtCI.

October 9, 2013 at 3:28 p.m.
inquiringmind said...

Andrew what planet do you live on? The object of public education is not to eliminate students; it is to educate them. The very students that are the problem are likely the ones in greatest need of education, paying them to go elsewhere solves no problem. It is like squeezing a balloon.

October 10, 2013 at 7:05 a.m.
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