published Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Hamilton County Commission to revisit school funding issue

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    Hamilton County Commissioner Chester Bankston from District 9

With a new superintendent at the helm of Hamilton County Schools, a county commissioner plans to revisit a controversial resolution that gave the commission control of an education treasure chest.

Chester Bankston said he now wants commissioners to return to the schools the key to payment-in-lieu-of-taxes money earmarked for education.

Last week Bankston, who represents District 9 and earlier supported a plan to wrest control of the money from the schools, surprised some commissioners when he announced his plans to revisit the February resolution. He is expected to bring up the matter at today's full commission meeting.

"[The schools] just need it back," Bankston, a former Board of Education member, said of the funds. "I personally wish we wouldn't tell them how to use it."

Bankston voted in February with seven other commissioners for the body to control the money produced by any PILOT agreements the county entered after the 2009 tax year, including those with Volkswagen and Amazon. Greg Beck was the only commissioner who opposed the arrangement at the time.

Now Bankston says he's had a change of heart. The schools need about $1.5 million for capital projects, and Bankston said he's more confident that leadership will use the money wisely.

County Trustee Bill Hullander's office has collected about $1.15 million in PILOT money since December for the post-2009 agreements. This year the office has handed over about $1.76 million to the schools in pre-2009 PILOT money.

District 6's Joe Graham introduced the measure in February to have the commission control PILOT funds. The schools now must request that commissioners release the money for projects like construction and maintenance.

In February, at the request of state Rep. JoAnne Favors, the state attorney general issued an opinion that Hamilton County could legally withhold PILOT funds from the school board.

The schools asked commissioners to clear PILOT funds to purchase the David Brainerd School in March and upgrade its cafeteria, Graham said. Commissioners also agreed to spend PILOT money on land for a new Red Bank Middle School.

"We spent over $4 million at the time the PILOT fund had only $800,000," Graham said.

Graham thinks commission control still is necessary.

"Nothing's changed from February to now," he said. "We have a lot of schools that need a lot of work, and we don't have an affordable plan for the growth."

Graham asked former Superintendent Jim Scales for the school system's plan for the PILOT money when the issue arose last winter, he said. He wasn't satisfied with a letter explaining the money would be used in the schools' general fund.

"As far as I understand, they still don't have a plan," Graham said. "Don't get me wrong, I think Rick Smith's going to do a phenomenal job."

Chairman Larry Henry, who represents District 7, and District 3's Mitch McClure said they haven't decided how they would vote on the PILOT arrangement if Bankston asks to revisit it.

Henry hasn't talked to Smith about the proposal and is waiting to hear the facts today, he said.

"We don't ever want to exert authority over the school board," Henry said. "The climate at the school system has changed dramatically over the past few months.

McClure, who talked to Smith and the county's finance department about the matter, said some of the "skeptics in the community" who didn't trust Scales are more comfortable with Smith.

Still, Bankston's plan to revisit the arrangement "kind of caught us all off guard," McClure said.

County control of the money has worked well so far, McClure said.

"You can see that the mood of the commission is that we're going to support the needs that they can justify," McClure said, citing the vote on the David Brainerd School.

The commission will meet at the County Courthouse at 9:30 a.m.

about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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