Robinson: Coming together to create the school budget

Robinson: Coming together to create the school budget

March 19th, 2017 by Tiffanie Robinson in Opinion Columns
Tiffanie Robinson

Tiffanie Robinson

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

As you sit and listen to school board discussions about Hamilton County Schools' budget, it's tough to have a discussion that does not look back more than it looks forward. My colleagues and I have tried in five budget meetings over the past 30 days, but honestly, we have rarely succeeded. Too much of the past gets caught up in the discussion of the future, and that just is not healthy. A reasoned sense of how our county education system got to where it is over the past dozen or so years is a good thing, and I am still learning. Dwelling on it is counterproductive.

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Tuesday night, the 18 elected members of the Board of Education and the Hamilton County Commission met for nearly two hours. Together, along with four members of the school system's staff and County Mayor Jim Coppinger, the 19th publicly elected official, we talked about the budget challenges facing both bodies, the superintendent search, fixing roofs, $216 million on a capital needs list, school zoning issues, Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts, the budget process, high school athletic facilities, status of county bond money, property tax increases and other revenue sources.

It was a full plate of topics. I think the next superintendent would have been pleased to hear the overall discussion, even if he or she knew a little bit of our school system's history over the past two decades. Nothing was solved at the meeting, but there were some very good action items discussed that need to be organized. There were times of excellent discussion, times of frank disagreement and times when it was clear that neither body had all the accurate information it needed.

Still, like in the school board's Finance Committee, I had a sense that too often the discussion resided in past actions, past statistics, past lists, past tax increases and past perceptions that may not be true today.

Think about any discussion today around the subject of new money for schools. What seems clear is that county commissioners today do not see the way forward to raise property taxes. Some said as much Tuesday night. That is their decision and I respect it. However, here is an example of where the past helps the school board because the 12-year track record of no increase in county revenue — beyond natural growth in property tax revenue — establishes the environment in which board members discuss their budget going forward in the next few weeks.

There are voices in the community, however, who want to see new revenue for schools. I have heard from them, talked with them and met with them during my first six months on the board. Those voices are out there, but seem seldom heard.

Those voices represent a wide spectrum of ages — a parent or guardian of a student or perhaps a grandparent or aunt. They are teachers and thousands of other school system employees and their families. How many of those people pay county property taxes? How would they poll if asked if 2017 was a time to consider increasing them? Personally, my passion is largely driven by two pre-school children. However, many of us think about the next generation of parents in their 20s.

Given the current environment, it would stand to reason that the "budget months" for the commission and the board, now until sometime in June, would be the right time to talk about the real needs of the school system going forward. We inched across the start line on that process Tuesday night.

Let's ask what needs are real? What isn't? Are we putting money in the right places? Are we being good stewards of the money, can we document it, and are we accountable? How do we address capital needs and at what pace? Can we do something different? Can we get outside the box? Is the system as a whole utilizing philanthropic resources available, and is the whole of the system being given the chance to benefit from this money and subject-matter experts? What does right look like five years from today, from an academic, financial and facility standpoint?

To do this will give the next superintendent of our $400 million business a clear sense of how we talk about schools. Whether it's iZone schools, budgets, buses, overall academic performance, schools of choice, it's time to do something different because what we do know is what all of us have done is not enough.

Still, given where we are today, I say let's have a discussion about funding while pooling whatever resources we have at maintaining schools. Let's fix roofs, air conditioning units, electrical issues, pest problems or many of the items that do not include building new schools. And let's talk about taxes, a word which tends to stop every conversation.

No one wants to pay more taxes. Everyone wants to be the metropolitan area with the lowest property tax rates. It's good for business recruiting to talk about no state income tax and low county taxes. But when businesses get here and peek under the school system's hood, it's a crisis. Taking a holistic approach to produce students that Volkswagen can hire does not happen; the status quo prevails and another year passes.

Meanwhile, as one of my older friends says, Rome burns. The school system makes small gains in select areas and has literally hundreds of small successes that go untold; yet, the overall school system remains deeply paralyzed, and that means it's moving backwards.

So we bog down in the past and not the future, not even a couple of years down the road. Since the commission and board are now discussing budgets, let's examine all possible revenue sources, even those not currently used. We can find ways to protect those, like seniors, who are vulnerable. When we finish the current budget, let's publicly talk about revenue and expense projections for 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. We talked about actually doing those things Tuesday night.

My guess is the next superintendent would appreciate it.

Tiffanie Robinson, elected last August to represent District 4 on the Board of Education, is chairwoman of the Finance Committee, a parent and chief executive officer of Lamppost Properties.