When the Hamilton County School Board met for over three hours on Thursday night, the frustration and despair were both expected and quite visible. The nine-person board believes it is virtually assured that when the Hamilton County Commission begins to prepare for its Fiscal Year 2018 Budget in several weeks, our public schools will wind up in worse shape than anyone could ever dream.
In dozens of casual-yet-candid talks between the harried school board members and our well-meaning County Commissioners, all 18 elected officials are on the exact same page and each is well aware of the inherent dangers obviously facing the 42,000 school children who attend public schools in Hamilton County. Teachers are leaving for better pay in Cleveland, Polk County, and Georgia. Families are bolting to private schools. Signal Mountain seems intent on leaving.
The situation is admittedly worsening. But the rub is there hasn’t been a tax increase in 12 years and there is absolutely no money available in the cash-strapped county. How could there be? In a scenario that is now being repeated in an annual fashion, the school board suffers worse with each new year. The schools’ demands, far greater than over a decade ago, can’t possibly be met without additional income.
The school board was expected to approve a budget request last night that was not a balanced one. Genuine needs – ‘must items’ if you will – outweigh the other side of the ledger by $24.5 million. That is not what the County Commissioners requested – they want a balanced budget. So instead the school board tabled the budget request on Thursday rather than pass it.
Next Thursday at a special called meeting, school-board members are expected to pass a “balanced budget” that will have “a critical needs list” attached to it. Joe Smith, the board’s newest member, valiantly authored and engineered the new way of presenting an urgent plea to the County Commission.
Of course, most of the Commission members already have the unbalanced version – there are few secrets in county government anymore – but the school board now wants everything out in the open for a most profound reason. “It’s time to put the horse back where it needs to be -- before the cart, and let the public know the School Board is well-aware and extremely concerned. We are presenting the County Commission a line-by-line account of what our schools need,” said long-time school principal David Testerman.
“Somehow the cart (School Board) has been placed before the horse (County Commission) and the School Board has taken the blame. But, no, we are subservient. If the County Commission refuses to fund our public schools, don’t blame the School Board. We have told them what it takes. Now they’ll tell us what they will give … and we have no say in it.”
Testerman pointed out the flaw. “What happens is this: 2018 is an election year. By not raising taxes, the County Commission is doing exactly what must be done in order to be ‘heroes’ on Election Day. Well, I for one am tired of being the villain,” Testerman said candidly. “We know … we can see … I can show anyone … our children’s needs aren’t being met because the County Commissioners have not raised the taxes the system takes.”
“If the County Commissioners choose not to do what’s right, it is not my fault,” said Testerman. “We have fulfilled our obligation to present to them what it is going to take. It is time for them to accept the responsibility for under-funding a generation of children.”
Joe Galloway, the longtime coach who knows what it takes to win, chimed in. “For the last 12 years it has been ‘an election year.’ An election is when we choose the people we trust to make the tough decision and right now our school system demands some tough decisions to be made. This budget is fair, honest. We are serving Hamilton County with the best of our ability.”
Testerman nodded. “Joe’s right, but what we need to face is this: ours is a broken system. What we have been doing is wrong so why do it again, digging a deeper hole?”
Joe Wingate, another with an analytical baseball mind, continues to point to a marked lack of leadership as the reason Hamilton County’s schools are – in a word, destitute – but a search committee is closing in on presenting the School Board a list of superintendent candidates after the last three each left prematurely. “I want to tell you we are doing things better. That said, I don’t think it is fair to fault today’s students with the downfall of the HCDE in the last 12 years. They had nothing to do with it. And they don’t deserve this.
“Talking about past failures – bad leaders -- not only accomplishes nothing, it further drags all of us down to a new low. The reason I got into this (School Board) is because I am proud of where I live, but there is more. I have children in the public school system. I have taught in the public school system. I now teach students from the public school system (he’s a professor/baseball coach at Chattanooga State) and my personal goal is to make a difference in young people.
“I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to recognize a need, to find a solution, and be told it is an election year. The victims are the children. Mine included.”
Whew! In case it got past you, a line has just been drawn in the sand. The School Board has no money, especially after they have raided their reserves to the bare minimum after taking $10 million in the past year to fix, of all things, rotten roofs. A cursory look at the 2018 budget shows no money for new construction on a physical plant that averages 40-plus years.
The list goes on and on. Joe Wingate says we are in peril until we get the leadership we need and he’s right. The question is, do we have a person on the County Commission who is ready to acknowledge that what we’ve been doing isn’t working, who is ready to challenge the broken system, and is ready to confront the fact 12 years without a tax increase will one day cost us millions.
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THE STORY OF THE LEANING SIDE
I’ve been saving this tale, it’s anonymous and was told a real long time ago. When things look a little bleak, I like to read it because I too have a leaning side, until a day comes when things look a little bleak. Maybe it will fit in right now.
The unknown writer tells us, “Often when I pray, I think of my good friend that was a deacon and always prayed:
“Lord, prop me up on my leaning side."
After hearing him pray that prayer many times, I asked him why he prayed that prayer so fervently. He answered,
"Well sir, you see, it's like this. I got an old barn out back. It's been there a long time, it's withstood a lot of weather, it's gone through a lot of storms, and it's stood for many years."
"It's still standing, but one day I noticed it was leaning to one side a bit. So I went and got some pine poles and propped it up on its leaning side, so it wouldn't fall.
"Then I got to thinking about that and how much I was like that old barn. I have been around a long time, I have withstood a lot of life's storms, I have withstood a lot of bad weather in life, I have withstood a lot of hard times, I have developed a bunch of bad habits, and I'm still standing, too."
"But I find myself leaning to one side from time to time, so I like to ask the Lord to prop me up on my leaning side, because I figure a lot of us get to leaning, at times.
"Sometimes we get into the bad habits of leaning toward anger, leaning toward bitterness, leaning toward hatred, leaning towards not taking good care of ourselves, leaning toward a lot of things that we shouldn't, so I need to pray:"
"Lord, prop me up on my leaning side, so that I will once again, stand straight and tall."