published Friday, July 15th, 2011

School board may seek more PILOT money

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith speaks during Thursday evening's school board meeting. The board discussed next year's budget.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith speaks during Thursday evening's school board meeting. The board discussed next year's budget.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

If the Hamilton County school board approves a balanced budget next Thursday — which would mean almost $18 million in cuts — Chairman Mike Evatt wants the County Commission to kick in some more money.

He said he plans to ask commissioners — who control the school system’s money — to release special education funds paid to the county. The payment-in-lieu-of-taxes funds, known as PILOTs, already amount to between $3 million and $4 million and could keep schools from overcrowding and understaffing, he said, which is likely if the student population jumps more than the 500 students expected next year.

“We are to the point where I feel like, if we are asked to cut at this level, we will need additional revenue,” newly hired Superintendent Rick Smith told the board Thursday night at a work session to discuss the budget. “We are growing. It makes me nervous .... The scary thing will be if a 1,000 [more] kids show up.”

PILOT agreements are tax breaks used to lure companies, such as Volkswagen. Under the agreements, businesses don’t have to pay full property taxes for a certain number of years, but they must pay the share of property tax that is slated for schools.

Board of Education members proposed budget cuts to balance the school district’s 2012 budget. Evatt said commissioners were skeptical of newly elected board members and “didn’t give (them) a chance” to prove that they took the situation seriously.

But the severity of $17.8 million in cuts on the table — cutting as many as 30 teaching, support and assistant principal jobs, lowering the number of projected teaching hires from 55 to 45 and eliminating nearly half the budget for facilities maintenance — may send a message that the board is serious about being frugal, Evatt said.

And after speaking with several commissioners, he said he has reason to be optimistic.

“Once they see we are doing what is right, they may say ‘OK,’” Evatt said.

But asking the commission for PILOT money could open up some old wounds. Earlier this year, some commission members said they wanted the PILOT dollars to be earmarked only for school construction and threatened to withhold the money if the school board didn’t agree.

Former Superintendent Jim Scales argued that the money was needed for the system’s general budget — as it always had been used in the past — and that withholding it would be illegal.

The commission and school board finally agreed that money generated from new PILOT agreements or any increases in PILOT money due to property tax hikes will be withheld by the commission while the school system will continue to receive the amount of money it has been receiving.

Still, decisions about some budget cuts didn’t sit well with board members during Thursday night’s discussion.

Board members including Rhonda Thurman, Linda Mosley, David Testerman and George Ricks spoke out against Smith’s plan to get rid of health insurance benefits for 49 contracted bus drivers. Trimming driver benefits would save $490,000.

“I doesn’t seem fair to jerk that out from under them right now,” Mosley said.

She suggested that contract drivers simply pay more toward their insurance premiums, noting that teachers increased their individual premium from $25 to $100, saving the system millions.

Removing health coverage for the drivers, most of whom are over the age of 55 and would find it nearly impossible to find and afford new insurance, is wrong and unfair, especially without notice, some drivers said.

“It would affect my livelihood greatly,” said Jerry Green, a driver who attended the meeting with more than a dozen other drivers.

Green, 64, has driven for the county for 38 years and said he knows the schools must come up with a balanced budget, but hopes they can do it without putting so many bus drivers at risk.

Smith said the budget he will present next week for approval will not include a plan to cut contract driver’s benefits.

But that will force the school system to dig deeper into its Rainy Day Fund balance, leaving it with between $10 million to $11 million, he said. Even with the current cuts, the school system will have to use $1.5 million of the fund to cover costs, he said.

The state requires the system have 3 percent, or about $10 million to $11 million, of its $315 million general fund in reserves.

After school board members OK the budget, the County Commission must approve it.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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inquiringmind said...

The whole thing is insane. Who can afford to work with no health insurance? Why not cut Mr. Rick's salary in half? That would fund one or two teachers. I'm sure the county is funding some unneeded programs and is overweight in staff. I'd say raise taxes except Ms. Thurman and friends have already proved the board is incapable of operating responsibly, if not inept, and we already know about the county commisioners...

July 15, 2011 at 8:17 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

Oh, the buy-out of Dr. Scales would have funded 8-10 teeachers.

July 15, 2011 at 8:19 a.m.
Humphrey said...

The Pilot money is for education.

They wouldn't give it to Scales (and the county commissioners were talking about splitting it up among themselves) but they'll give it to their boy Rick.

And they aren't even embarrassed.

July 15, 2011 at 10:31 a.m.

GOD Help US! As long as each and every joker on this school board (including smith) is permitted to "fool" with such large amounts of money, our STUDENTS will continue to suffer.

Chattanooga is attracting many well educated it any wonder they are choosing NOT to reside in Hamilton County for reasons such as this very article. They don't want their children attending such poorly run schools. And if they do decide to plant roots in Chattanooga, they have the option of 3 fine private schools.

Not a one of the board members is qualified to drive a bus to transport students to and from school, let alone make such cricital decisions affecting our learners. People like them are going to destroy the scenic city.

July 15, 2011 at 11:24 a.m.

One quick (catty) observation TFP...great image of smith with his mouth hung open like a sure enough "hick," while exposing the female's half naked upper torso -- you know, the one who 'blow' dries hair for a living.

July 15, 2011 at 11:30 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

I am surprised it has taken all week for the county to start cutting benefits for the working poor school system employees in order to pay for its $500,000 secret hiring fiasco.

I thought a good political puppet would have had this taken care of by last Wednesday. Although, I applaud the new superintendent for doing anything at all. I assumed he would be on vacation for the next six months. Maybe it will just take that long for the weight of the truth to sink in for him. Until then, cut away, Mr. Super! You have to pay for that Good Ole Boy job somehow.

We're aware that local political cronies won't spend PILOT on anything but themselves.

The longer the county can keep the tax money, including "PILOT", in its accounts, the longer it can make money off of it. The more you have in slush, the more the interest and gambling winnings they'll make. The county will never give up control of those funds, except as they can be refreshed; that is, if they hit some kind of legal limit on how long they can keep the money, or if they have some kind of tax collection deadline that brings in another mass of money, then they'll seed out some of it.

They are not going to let go of the money, regardless of what name was put on its collection. Since it wasn't "tax" money, the county commission will get just as creative with its disposition of those funds as the language used to collect them while circumventing the tax code.

Chances are, they will make up the money shortages in the way we have most frequently seen in town in the past few years: some kind of bulk termination of employees near retirement or out of the public's direct view.

Chances are those terminations will be an indirect result of all of those "promotions" they published recently.

These "good", politically motivated career moves, like the secret assessment and sudden appointment of the new superintendent, will be offset with quiet firings that will "save money."

We're going to end up firing educators to pay off political cronies.

Bureaucrats and internal system support workers are probably walking around right now with a fat bullseye on the budget line that holds their payroll.

The county commission will retain those PILOT funds and route the proceeds to their political friends, like former mayors. That's how they have been spending their money and resources so far; that's what they will continue to do.

They haven't spent PILOT on schools. They won't. The county commission will spend PILOT on themselves and their friends. That includes their Metro Payoff Club allies in the city who helped get Mayor Coppinger appointed last November.

This is the payout segment of that set of political favors.

Don't worry, six figure salary holders, your country club memberships are okay with your Republican buddies in City and County government.

The support workers will be among the first to suffer.

July 15, 2011 at 5:47 p.m.
328Kwebsite said...

I think I figured out why this came up today.

It's payday for government workers on 1st and 15th day pay cycles.

So, where's the money going to come from to pay the check for the new Superintendent? Did the County budget for the removal of old employees and the installation of these political cronies?

Budgets rarely have allotments for contingencies.

So, let's suppose the county decides to spend PILOT money on this. What does that say about their earlier withholding? And if they don't spend it on this, what does that say about their future plans for all of those Big Money Millions?

Hmmm. Election time is next year. If only we could get some more millions for our friends like Representative Desjarlais got last time. He got a million to match his spent million after that Citizens United decision let GOP money launderers spend money more freely. I wonder where we are going to get a pot of money to do that? Especially one that doesn't have any regulatory laws controlling its use as a "tax."

Well, until then, we may have to fire five or six support workers to pay for the new Superintendent.

Just like we fired five deputies at the county jail to pay to get Bob Corker's right hand man installed as County Chief of Staff.

If we make all of the kids go to the Drive-Thru at lunch, then we won't need as many cafeteria workers. Nobody liked the succotash anyway. Bye, Bye, Cafeteria Lady. Hello, new iPad for the kids and more boutique dresses for the wife and golf clubs for fresh executives who don't need to bother with elections.

Man, ain't it great to be a six figure Republican in government who doesn't have to lead, be experienced or get elected?

Too bad we can't put that bus driver on hourly pay at $7.50 an hour plus mileage. That'd be a real Republican decision! Whew! I'm on a roll, bankroll, that is. Huh-huh.

With great ideas like this in play in the county, I can't help but wonder what kind of brilliance Mayor Littlefield is perpetrating right now. We haven't seen any great decisions from his kind in about two weeks.

Just like a child that's too quiet, silence from Mayor Littlefield means he's up to something. It's not likely to be smart, selfless or good.

I know what Mayors Littlefield and Coppinger can do: bill secondary school kids for parking!

Those kids can work to pay to park at school, just like Mom and Dad do when they go to work at their job. Those bus riders can pay to park the bus at the depot, too.

Did they try to put the police in Mini Coopers, yet? I know I saw some up-armored SegWays a few days ago. Police on a golf cart, now there's another money saver! Maybe a deputy on a Hoveround.

Here's how we save money in education: we let kids use the Internet instead of going to school. That'll work out great!

I sure hope we get some people fired before the end of the month. How else will the new Superintendent get paid?

July 15, 2011 at 7:09 p.m.
328Kwebsite said...

A big hive of unused, electro-mechanical parking meters installed at all the secondary schools ought to raise some more nickel and dimes to pay for some of these promotions.

We could use the ones ripped up when Mayor Littlefield installed those robo-parking meters that call an attendant over the Internet when there are enough expired spaces in the area to issue citations.

Good thing we can nix the health care for those bus drivers. Now, all we have to do is come up with the other half a million that this fiasco cost.

Until then, let's fire some people with no political pull. I wonder who that could be, Cafeteria Lady? I guess we can ask our recently demoted Director of Human Resources to help us find a way to "cut the fat."

Gosh, you know who's really unnecessary? Two mayors in the same swath political and financial crime. There can only be one Godfather. Likely winner? The only one not holding a local check right now.

July 15, 2011 at 7:41 p.m.
Selah said...

Less than 20 percent of the County voted in the last school board election. We criticize and speak but MAKE SURE YOU VOTE beginning in 2012 to send a message all still belongs to "WE THE PEOPLE" If your area is not voting make sure you go out an encourage others to VOTE 2012.

July 15, 2011 at 9:34 p.m.
Johnnie5000 said...

Here a solution instead of butthurt griping. PILOT funds are set aside for construction. At least 25% of the school board budget is for utilities at the schools alone.

Here's where the construction part comes into play: Take the pilot money and cover the rooftops of every school building with solar panels to ease the electrical burden. Install cisterns for collecting rainwater runoff for the toilets in the buildings. Make everything in the buildings more energy efficient (better insulation, better windows, etc).

This won't help this year's budget, but will tremendously help the following years budgets.

July 16, 2011 at 1:08 a.m.

johnnie, very good point but who will do the work? Will requests for the job be both open to the public and done without regard to how the contractor votes? I think NOT. The present board is riding on borrowed time........I HOPE.

July 16, 2011 at 11:14 a.m.

Selah...that low percentage is a dreadful shame. If only a few more thousand would vote, would bet money the present board would be flat out on their back-ends. We need more progressive individuals on the board who will take into account...our students on not their self-serving selves.

I so hope people will find the time to VOTE in 2012. So many changes are needed to help Chat town continue with the outstanding growth we are thanks to the present administration.

July 16, 2011 at 11:25 a.m.
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