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SCHOOL PATROL: Questions and answers on hot topics

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Education and potential tax increases are always hot topics around here, and people have plenty of questions. So let's field a few:

Q: Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith will ask the County Commission for a 40-cent property tax increase. Will he get it?

A: If that decision had to be made today, absolutely not. But the budget won't be presented to the Commission until early May, and six weeks is a long time in politics. (Probably not long enough to make Commissioners go for a sizable tax hike, however.) Last year, I emceed a candidate forum for Commission candidates, and all agreed that the county schools had some pressing needs. All were in favor of addressing those needs. None, however supported a property tax hike to fund them. They said the state should pitch in more money, that local businesses should get more involved, and that growth in the county's tax base would provide additional revenue. School Board members say all of that sounds good, but it isn't paying the bills.

Q: It seems like the schools are always wanting more money. Will they ever get enough?

A: That's a fair question. When I started covering schools a couple of decades ago, I went to the library for some background information. I saw a 1965 newspaper article that said, “Schools will have to make cuts if tax hike fails.” Then one from 1975, “Tax hike needed to avoid teacher cuts.” And yes, every couple of years, there was the same old story. School administrators and elected officials came and went, the faces changed, but the headlines have stayed the same. Critics are right: the school budget increases every year. But will they ever have the money they say they need? Will any of us? Probably not.

Q: So is Rick Smith crying wolf, or do the schools really NEED an additional $34 million to operate next year?

A: “Need” and “want” are two different things. The county schools will stay open if there is no budget increase next year. But Smith, to his credit, wants to give the county's teachers a meaningful pay raise, and wants to provide arts and foreign language teachers in all elementary schools instead of a few. He's trying to keep schools current with technology too. He says he will be unable to achieve those goals without a sizable budget boost.

Q: Would he settle for less than a 40-cent property tax hike?

A: I'm sure he'd be thrilled to get half that. And on the occasions when Commissioners have approved tax hikes for schools, a compromise is often reached. But today at least, it appears when Commissioners say “No new taxes,” as most did when they were campaigning, they mean it.

Q: But didn't Rick Smith get the job because School Board members thought he'd have a better chance of getting tax money than his predecessors?

A: At least, partially, yes. In 2010, it appeared then-Superintendent Jim Scales' political capital had run dry, as Jesse Register's had five years earlier. Many believed a hometown product like Smith would be able to charm the Commissioners better than the others had done. He's certainly well-liked in local government circles, but you know what they say about getting blood from a turnip.

Q: Why don't we just use funds from the state lottery? That money is supposed to go to schools, right?

A: It's true that lottery money goes to education, but not to school districts, or individual schools. It goes to after-school programs, and college scholarship funding. It would take a constitutional amendment to overhaul the current program, and that isn't happening anytime soon.

Q: So when are they going to build new schools for CSLA and East Hamilton Middle?

A: No one can say, for now. Last year, the county issued bonds to pay for four major projects, but not those two. County Mayor Jim Coppinger can't say how soon those projects will get off the ground, but they seem to be on everyone's wish list. No tax increases would be required, but the county wants to keep its AAA bond rating intact, so they move cautiously.

Q: But why does it seem like some areas get all the new school buildings, and others get the shaft?

A: In some cases, it's the degree of need, and in others it's simply politics. Politics involves geography, clout, and the ability to make a deal. Some elected officials took ownership of their neighborhood schools and were tenacious in their efforts to build new school facilities, or replace old ones. Unfortunately, other areas have not had that sort of advocacy.

Q: Who's been left out?

A: An argument could certainly be made for CSLA, which has been on the “runner-up” list for a new school since 1999. And although Central High doesn't need a whole new school, it astounds me that a fine arts building/auditorium which was in the original 1968 architectural plans never got built. It was a victim of budget cuts. To this day, Central has a too-small band room, no auditorium, and only one gym (many nearby high schools have two).

Q: So with all these apparent needs, why doesn't the public rally around Rick Smith, and demand a tax increase to get these things done?

A: First, there are large segments of the local populace who have no interest in paying for local public school needs. Many retired folks feel they've already paid their dues. Thousands of others are home schooling their children, or sending them to private schools, often with a huge price tag. And even some who have children in school think their taxes are high enough, and that they're already being nickel-and-dimed to death with fees and fundraisers. Smith will be taking his message on the road in April, hosting nine district meetings to sell his plan to the public. Some Board members say that's a noble effort, but those most likely to attend will be “the PTA folks who are already on board.” Much like church on Sunday, the choir will be present. But what about the people who really need to hear the message? How do you get them in the house, and convert them to your side? That is the challenge facing Rick Smith.

School Patrol

David Carroll covers education news and issues at schools across the Tennessee Valley.


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