Hamilton County Schools, county commission still split on $50 million construction funds

Hamilton County Schools, county commission still split on $50 million construction funds

November 3rd, 2011 by Ansley Haman in News

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith speaks Wednesday morning about the plan by Hamilton County officials to make $50 million available for new school construction.

Photo by Jenna Walker /Times Free Press.

POLL: Who should get to decide how school construction money is spent?

With $50 million on the table for new Hamilton County school construction projects, the tug of war has begun over who decides how it's spent.

On the Hamilton County Commission's side is fundraising power. On the school board's is, arguably, state law.

After county commissioners voted Wednesday, for the second time in a month, to grab control of money from sales of school property, school board Chairman Mike Evatt lamented "the lack of transparency between the commission and the board."

"That's why we feel blindsided, stepped on and micromanaged," Evatt said Wednesday afternoon.

Commissioners voted to amend a 2004 agreement between the county and schools about how to finance and approve school projects.

Commissioner Fred Skillern's resolution inserted new language requiring that if the school board sells property, the proceeds must be turned over to the county and held in escrow for future school projects. Another new clause requires that any new properties purchased for schools be deeded to Hamilton County instead of the school board.

Skillern called the changes to the 2004 agreement "a renewal."

"As our previous mayor [Claude Ramsey, now deputy governor] says, I am not going to sign my name to a note and not have any say-so on how that happens."

The resolution was not on the commission's agenda Wednesday but was circulated after the meeting began. Chairman Larry Henry called for a vote, and commissioners passed it unanimously.

Henry said Wednesday afternoon he didn't know if all commissioners read the amendment before they voted.

"I think some of them were under the understanding that it was just ratifying the agreement from 2004," Henry said. He said he didn't consider the amendment micromanaging.

Hamilton County Commissioner Chester Bankston from District 9

Hamilton County Commissioner Chester Bankston from District 9

One commissioner, Chester Bankston, said he wouldn't have voted for the amendment if he'd had time to read it.

"I'm going to bring that back up next week," Bankston said after the meeting. "I was surprised and so were some other people. That was an old school-board trick that somebody pulled."

Bankston, a former school board member, has been pushing for more than a month to let the board - also an elected body - manage capital funds.

School response

Amending the 2004 agreement will also require a vote by the school board, but Evatt said he doesn't expect many members to support the commission's move. He said the board is entitled under state law to site, design and build schools.

Asked later what would happen if the school board didn't go along, Skillern said, "They generally always approve it because they know where their revenues come from."

The county issues bonds to fund capital projects, including schools. Skillern said the county must demand accountability since its bond rating is on the line.

"We have never discussed where to spend the money," Skillern said. "We want them to bring to us their plan of where to spend the money. Do you think any bank would loan you any money to build a house until you showed what kind of house you would build?"

Evatt said the school board approved the first phase of a $247 million capital projects plan last week that it plans to present to commissioners next week.

Is it legal?

Tension between school boards and county commissions is common across the state, said Joel Moseley, director of policy and staff attorney for the Tennessee School Boards Association.

"County commissions are charged with raising the funds, and they believe they should have some say in how the properties are disposed of in the future, but that's not the way the statute is written," Moseley said Wednesday.

He questioned whether the 2004 agreement, which has never been challenged, would survive in court.

"That power and duty is vested in them [the school board] by the state statute. What you would have is a local board overriding a state statute," Moseley said. "If the board of education ever balked and said we're not going to do this, I don't think the County Commission could ever enforce that agreement. ... I'm not sure two parties can agree to circumvent the law."

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