School board, Hamilton County to meet over funding

School board, Hamilton County to meet over funding

February 13th, 2011 by Kelli Gauthier in News

Joe Graham

No one is quite sure what to expect when the Hamilton County school board and County Commission meet Monday to duke it out over school funding, but both parties claim they're going in with open minds.

It will be the first time both groups have met since about half the members of each body were newly elected last August.

One of the newest Hamilton County commissioners, Joe Graham, first brought forth a resolution to put payment-in-lieu-of-taxes money generated for schools into an escrow account controlled by the commission. The money, about $6 million now, would be used for school construction.

Although commissioners approved the measure 8-1 on Feb. 2, they agreed to meet with the school board to discuss the matter jointly.

"I want to hear what they have to say. We're going to see what comes of the meeting," Graham said then. "Anything could happen."

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he isn't sure the commissioners would change their minds and turn control of the PILOT money back over to the schools to be used for operating expenses.

"We will be discussing what [the County Commission's] role is as the body who provides the funding, and how [the school board] is spending the money once they get it. ... Money spent in classrooms versus central office, how to maintain current facilities, plans for expansion," he said.

At least several school board members say they hope to change the commissioners' minds.

Member Mike Evatt said if commissioners plan to keep the PILOT money and spend it on construction, they should find a way to pay for the $6 million shortfall the move would open in the district's fiscal 2012 operating budget of more than $300 million.

IF YOU GO

What: Joint meeting between the Hamilton County Board of Education and the Hamilton County Commission

When: 5 p.m. Monday

Where: Department of Education board room, 3074 Hickory Valley Road

"If the commission deems that they're going to keep the money so we don't have to raise taxes, I'm not totally for it, but if it means we are going to be able to proceed with our situation with overcrowdedness next year, then so be it," Evatt said.

"I won't be totally happy with it because we're going to be faced with going back to the commission for future operating expenses."

Member Linda Mosley said she is "going to go in there as a blank slate and hope for the best."

"We're all uncertain of what to expect, and we're hopeful that [the commission] will be open-minded," Mosley said.

Member Rhonda Thurman said she understands the County Commission is concerned about the school board's spending.

"The commission has been very generous to us. Plus they build our schools and they don't have to, they pay the interest on our bonds and they don't have to. The commissioner in my district spends most of his discretionary money in schools," she said.

"It's not that they're not going to use [the money] in schools, they just want it used for buildings."

Meanwhile, County Commissioner Greg Beck said it's not the commission's responsibility to "pontificate whether they could do a better job" running the school system than the school board.

"It's not my business. My business is to supply the school system with what it takes to educate 42,000 children and to operate 80 school buildings. My business is not to micromanage the school system," he said.

"Do I oversee [the school board]? No. The voters manage the school board. If there's something going on that the voters don't like, then they vote the school board out."

Contact Kelli Gauthier at kgauthier@timesfreepress.com or 423 757-6249. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/gauthierkelli.