Gerber: Hamilton County school board should be transparent about multi-million dollar decisions

Gerber: Hamilton County school board should be transparent about multi-million dollar decisions

October 29th, 2017 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

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If you live in Hamilton County and you expect to have a say in how millions of dollars in taxpayer money is spent on your child's school, you're out of luck.

Earlier this month, school board members did something that proved they aren't interested in what taxpayers and parents think. The Hamilton County Board of Education voted Oct. 19 to spend $125 million to build, merge and renovate schools. And they did this without allowing members of the public — you know, their constituents — to offer up opinions or question the spending decisions.

In fact, the $125 million in project funding was not even on the published agenda for the school board meeting that night. Not only did the board not give notice that this issue would be discussed at the public meeting, it also did not have a public input period at the meeting in which parents and taxpayers could express their opinions about how this huge amount of money was being spent.

Times Free Press reporter Rosana Hughes reported some details of the projects on Oct. 7, but Superintendent Bryan Johnson said at the time, "There is no official plan" and refused to confirm Hughes' findings about specific projects.

Tiffanie Robinson was the only board member to admit to having seen the plan. She told Hughes she'd seen a plan but described it as merely "ideas" and "very preliminary."

Other school board members either did not return Hughes' calls or claimed they had not seen an "official" plan.

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But then, presto! By the very next meeting this preliminary plan was suddenly real and quickly got a unanimous vote with no discussion. Imagine that.

The plan was never presented to the public so parents could digest it. There was no opportunity for parents and taxpayers to address the school board and share their views.

"The lack of transparency has really bothered people," said a parent from Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, which under the plan is moving to Tyner Middle School.

She said parents actually are very positive about the plan but, nevertheless, the public should have had a say before the vote.

Not allowing public input "created a lot of questions and has made us feel like we are not important," the parent said. "It's very frustrating."

The school board's behavior, shameful as it is, is emblematic of a larger problem. Government no longer feels like it has to give the public any input.

Read "The Lost Way," a series the newspaper published in September. It looks back at Chattanooga's history of listening to residents and how residents and officials came together to solve problems and plan major projects — the so-called Chattanooga Way — and it details how that practice has fallen by the wayside.

The school board vote is the perfect example of how residents have been cut out of the decision-making process.

On Weston Wamp's radio show, school board member Joe Smith recently lashed out at editorials on The Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press opinion pages about the vote. Both editorial pages criticized the school board for its lack of transparency. In 2016, Smith ran for a seat on the Hamilton County Commission with the slogan, "Knocking out politics as usual." How ironic that now, as a school board member, he is defending the practice of not allowing the public to have input.

Last week Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd, a self-described good government warrior, proposed requiring the Hamilton County Commission to take two votes to pass resolutions that increase property taxes.

No other commissioner spoke in favor of the motion last week. When it comes up again this week, let's see if the motion gets a second, which would allow a public vote. Surely no politician wants to be on record voting against giving the public more time to consider a tax increase.

The motion deserves a second, so it can get a vote.

If it doesn't get a vote, commissioners would be signalling that they have no interest in giving citizens and voters more say in how public money is raised and spent.

Hamilton County is in desperate need of elected officials who remember that when they increase taxes wand spend millions in taxpayer money they are doing the public's business. And the public deserves a say.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.

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