Cook: Two plus two is zero

Cook: Two plus two is zero

October 9th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

When I think of 21st century education, one name immediately rises above all others.

Fred Skillern.

(That's not who you were thinking of?)

Last month, Skillern, the longtime Soddy-Daisy politician and businessman, was unanimously elected chairman of the Hamilton County Commission, which therefore makes him one of the most powerful men in local education. Why? Because he leads the body that controls the purse strings.

"No sir," he said, disagreeing. "A chairman has no other authority than assigning committees, and I've already assigned them."

Every dime spent on education must be first approved by the County Commission, over which Skillern presides. The Department of Education crafts its own budget, but it is the commission that approves it.

Lest we forget, it was Skillern, a former school board member, who last year suggested he was responsible for the ouster of a former superintendent -- "I was the board member believing Jesse Register was a crook and [I] ended up having seven votes" -- while also cursing current Superintendent Rick Smith.

"His ass is mine," Skillern had said.

Why not turn the tables? Instead of Skillern and the commission, let's put budgetary power into the hands of the school board.

"I think it's a great idea," said school board member Donna Horn. "We don't have control. We have our hands tied behind our backs. We are at their mercy."

Give the school board power to tax. Make them the body to which Smith requests funds. That way, you the citizen can hold them directly accountable for school funding.

"No sir. I would never support that," Skillern said. "You've got to have more checks and balances than one body."

Skillern's philosophy is that money is best spent directly on kids. A bloated central office takes too much money away from county classrooms and a school board won't provide the watchdog oversight the commission currently does.

"The further the money gets from the child, the less supportive I am," he said. "If you'll notice on my discretionary money, it's spent basically on what the school system doesn't supply for the schools."

Ahh, discretionary funding. Each year, commissioners get $100,000 apiece to spend as they see fit in their community. Band uniforms, new concession stands, books in the library, computers in the classrooms.

And next week, they'll vote whether to post all discretionary spending online.

"A large portion of it is schools," Skillern said.

(This, children, is called irony. Tragic, tragic irony.)

Why? Because schools are poorly funded because commissioners won't fund a school system they see as bloated and inefficient ... so they use their own discretionary money to fund a handful of programs that are impoverished ... and they're underfunded because commissioners won't fund a school budget they see as bloated and inefficient.

Dizzying, isn't it?

"I have worked and spent and tried to buy pro-lithium boards," Skillern said of schools in his district. "I hadn't even got all those boards bought for all of my schools, and now [Central Office is] coming up saying they want another kind of board now."

Skillern was referring to Promethean boards. And yes, technology is constantly changing.

Maybe such discretionary money is a pseudo-campaign fund, a blank check of taxpayer dollars that commissioners use to fund high-profile projects that in turn garner popularity and votes.

Maybe it's also a double standard: the county commission can spend money, but not trust the school board to do the same.

And maybe if such discretionary spending were to cease, and the money put back into the general fund, all those community projects would remain underfunded.

"I'm telling you, if discretionary funding goes away, kids are the losers, the community is the loser, and the non-profit is the loser," commissioner Tim Boyd said.

But that's not the worst part.

The worst part is that this never ends.

Like some civil war, the commission and school board and Central Office will continue to go round and round, arguing over money, efficiency and policy.

To borrow words from Boyd: Our kids lose in the process.

"If me spending most of my [discretionary] money on education makes me anti-education, then I plead guilty," said Skillern.

OK.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.