Smith: Funding priorities: School projects trigger questions

Smith: Funding priorities: School projects trigger questions

March 24th, 2014 By Robin Smith in Opinion Columns

Robin Smith

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Last week, County Mayor Jim Coppinger proposed $26 million to build a new school to combine Ganns Middle Valley and Falling Water elementary schools. Another $22 million has been proposed to build additions at existing schools - Nolan and Wolftever elementary schools and Sale Creek Middle-High School.

These budget proposals apparently followed numerous meetings that involved school board members, county commissioners, Hamilton County School Superintendent Rick Smith -- and even some alleged closed-door meetings out of the public view.

In the meantime, I've received questions posed by "concerned," "irate," "disappointed" and/or "weary" folks whose school needs seem to have been overlooked.

The need for school expansion and repair is unquestioned. There are some areas that have greater population growth in the county than others due to neighborhood construction and expansion. No argument.

Meanwhile, some ask: "Who represents the magnet school parents and children?"

This question is valid. As public schools that serve families living in a multitude of areas from around the county, magnet schools very frequently have children from several school board and County Commission districts.

While an elected school board or County Commission member may have the physical facility of a magnet school in his or her district, the parents (read voters) are scattered.

Others ask: "Why do we have an appointed school superintendent beholden to the politicians that picked him?"

The idea of electing school superintendents is one that's recurring. Unsuccessful legislation was introduced in 2011, 2013 and again just last week in the Tennessee General Assembly to elect school superintendents.

The advocates of an appointed school superintendent make valid points, saying the process prevents the position from devolving into a popularity contest.

The advocates of an elected superintendent, however, grow their argument in a time such as this when school construction funding is considered. An elected superintendent would be directly accountable to all voters.

Still others note: "These backroom deals and arm-twisting are disgusting! How do we stop them?"

This question came by text after a recommendation by County Commission Chairman Fred Skillern to have private meetings with Mayor Coppinger on the projects rather than "sit here all day" in a public hearing on school-project funding.

A few observations that apply:

• It's an election year. For county commissioners and school board members, those citizens who reside within their districts have the power and voice.

• It was just 2011 when the hiring of Rick Smith as school superintendent came amid a fog of accusations that "good old boys" of the County Commission and local politics were directing things.

• Since public schools are being pitted against each other for funding, why don't we open enrollment to all and allow the dollars to flow to those who achieve?

• There are a lot of politicians who support school choice, in theory. But in practice, charter and magnet schools are viewed by some as rivals of traditional schools.

I do believe it's time for real school choice that empowers parents to select the schools that are best for their children.

Robin Smith served as chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, 2007 to 2009. She is a partner at the SmithWaterhouse Strategies business development and strategic planning firm and serves on Tennessee's Economic Council on Women.