Roy Exum: The Budget’s About ‘Us’

Friday, April 14, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Kirk Kelly, the interim superintendent of the Hamilton County Department of Education, misspoke as he combed over the 2018 budget the School Board will soon present to the Hamilton County Commission. Dr. Kelly said that 81 percent of the budget is actually inside the schools every day. That is like saying one airplane dropped a 21,000-pound bomb on ISIS caves in Afghanistan yesterday.

Please, the United States as an entire country dropped “the mother of all bombs.” Us. We. All of the people. In the very same sense, I can go line-item by line-items in the 300-page budget being prepared for the county commission and show where every single penny is dedicated to the betterment of 42,000 children. I’ve covered every school board meeting for a year and a half and learned a whole lot.

It’s the same as a lonesome Air Force bomber. It was hardly a pilot, co-pilot and navigator. Many thousands made it work. Hundreds followed the flight second-by-second. Fighter jets protected the payload all over the skies. Radar, satellite, ships at sea – they were there. Any mission involves many.

Too often parents forget our teachers need health insurance, we must embrace the ever-changing technology in every department, risk management, health services, paid attendants on our school buses, the hall monitors as thousands of children now depend on the schools for breakfast as well as lunch each day. Our Saturday programs in the iZone schools are already producing incredible results …. And third graders aren’t as hungry.

The support package is huge, unavoidable, and very real. Just as it takes thousands of people to get an Air Force bomber into the air, a metro school district has non-educational needs that are most necessary in delivering an education. County Mayor Jim Coppinger has every department on a starvation diet and it’s questioned if the taxpayers’ needs in some departments are being fully met. This isn’t a knock at Jim. I am assured he does the best he can but he’ll admit he can’t take his granddaughter to Disney World on what he made 12 years ago. Hello?

Next week the School Board will vote to approve a budget request that in turn will be submitted to a County Commission that has indicated it will not support. There is a good reason for that – our county leadership has failed every citizen … and, yes, every child … by going a dozen years with no tax increase. We are looking at a $100 million corrections facility square in the eye and our school buildings average over 40 years old. How are you not going to have a tax increase and meet the needs of your neighbors?

We rant and rail about the failures in public education, that we are the worst metro district in the state, that we have not one single school now being built, and that our teachers rank 35th in pay among the state’s school district. Surprised? Of course not – you get what you pay for. We all know that.

We also know the last three superintendents have each left prematurely in a way that created havoc, that we have some of 79 schools that were built before the Viet Nam war and that now we are most assuredly paying the price for past commissioners “looking the other way.” It has enabled a genuine crisis in education to befall Chattanooga.

One of my closest friends – one who I would not hesitate to ask for advice – told me recently, “I agree with you on a lot of things but let’s get this real clear – not another penny for public schools until we have viable evidence Stupid has left the building. We are the worst!”

Until six months ago I felt the same way. I don’t know when I have been as mad, hurt and shocked by what I found when I, an old sports writer who admittedly hated school, started looking into our public school district. I was absolutely appalled. I wanted to fight someone after I found out, first hand, how many of our teachers were being treated, that bullying was rampant everywhere, that inner city kids were darn-near doomed from the very beginning and that athletic facilities in Hamilton County are just as inexcusable as over $5 million in roof repairs! I’m talking about school roofs, for heaven's sake.

I can point to four things that have since changed my mind:

DR. KIRK KELLY – I was so totally against this dinosaur who had been “kicked upstairs” after he allegedly cost the system something like $125,000 after mistreating a teacher. The Good Ole Boy system was strongly in play when he became an interim finalist and of the three chosen, I wouldn’t even have let him take an at-bat. I was very wrong. In a genius move, he gave Jill Levine a free rein as Chief Academic Officer and then Levine matched Kirk’s genius by getting Zac Brown and Justin Robertson as her top two leuitentants. Let’s never forget Kelly, Levine, Brown and Robertson have already completely changed the entire complexion of public education in our county. Granted, when it was as bad as it was, the only way to go was ‘up’ but, by golly, I have seen it happen.

LEE McDADE – At the beginning, this guy was the worst. He was in 90 percent of the horror stories but as the months went by and the seasons changed, it became pretty obvious he was the “garbage man.” Yeah, every distasteful chore landed in his lap. He was the last regime’s fall guy, yet he never complained, never fought back, never contradicted seedy rumors one time. That’s because he knew he was right. Kelly, Levine, Brown and Robertson know this is the truth. With those four believing in McDade, he’s able to do the same “smut work” with the Durham Bus people, children who bring drugs to school, and all else that takes a backbone to lift. Since the last superintendent tucked tail and ran, McDade gets my MVP vote.

THE SCHOOL BOARD – So here come our new faces – Tiffany Robinson, Kathy Lennon, Joe Wingate and Joe Smith – and each is aces. It would be unfair to compare a one to their predecessor because the last year was so unnerving but there is a better fit, and a greater urgency to do what’s best. Instead of Jonathan Welch and several others, there is a far better “team” atmosphere and now we have nine who genuinely appreciate one another. Whoever they pick as the new superintendent, each will have a meaningful voice and the other eight will listen.

WHAT’S TO COME – I have no crystal ball, and my NCAA bracket was lousy, but between the five leaders in the Central office (I’m including McDade with the four others), and the school board, I believe that if the County Commission sticks its heels in the ground and cuts education by $100 million, we’ve got a collection of winners who can still put children first. Not without great sacrifice, but if the commissioners faulter, the school board will do the best they can. There is not one thing in the proposed budget that shouldn’t be there. No, it doesn’t balance. That’s because bravery has looked “the other way” for some time. It’s upside down by $24 million, yet I can look at any county commissioner and tell them that if the cronies who went before you had any courage, we would never have been in this spot.

I am told on the “down low” the outside recruiting firm is ready to ask for that $65-grand check in return for 18-to-24 candidates to be our next superintendent. There are maybe ten on the list who you wouldn’t pay to drive you to Atlanta. There are another six or seven who Dr. Kelly could “shade” on a cloudy day. Three or four of the others bear a sniff, but who one earth would accept the job after the County Commission has promised to riddle the proposed budget with enemy gunfire.

And then there is one candidate who I am told is a bonafide superstar, who is in a deplorable job, and has the grit and sand to come to Hamilton County and be the Moses to take us to the Promised Land. This is just what I am whispered, mind you, but the County Commission shouldn’t short-change a new ‘super’s chances. Or the children who live on your same street.

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