Cooper: Searching for the hidden pony

Cooper: Searching for the hidden pony

March 19th, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press
Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Martin made one of the actionable suggestions at last week's joint meeting with the Hamilton County Board of Education.

Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Martin made one of...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Amid the at-times heated discussion at last week's joint Hamilton County Commission and Hamilton County Board of Education meeting, we believe there were — buried below the surface — hints of an agreement to help county public schools.

How deeply they are buried and how well they are able to be raised will determine when some relief might be found for the district's $200 million-plus schools maintenance backlog, how soon any new construction might be expected for schools on the district's priority list and whether capacity in the district's various schools might be adjusted to help free up space (or money) for other schools.

We hope we're not being too optimistic.

First, the elephant in the room — funding, or as the less bold prefer to call it, revenue enhancement.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said of the county budget at the meeting that "we've cut and we've cut and we've cut" and pulled rabbits out of hats for years to prevent a tax increase. Christie Jordan, the schools' assistant superintendent for finance and purchasing, said the school district has performed similar tricks with rabbits and hats on annual budgets.

"I don't want to raise taxes," the mayor said.

Similarly, constituents have told several county commissioners they don't want to see the commission give the local school district any more money without seeing quantifiable academic improvement. In short, more money comes only with more accountability.

But school board member David Testerman said that was the problem — nobody wants to raise taxes, but everybody expects new school construction, school maintenance issues to be resolved and instructional improvements all the same.

"The system's not working," he said. "We've known this train was going down the track 30 years ago. The community's in a crisis. Somehow, we have to find a way. What we're doing is not working."

The issue of fund balances was no less touchy.

Jordan admitted the school district's balance was the highest it's ever been but chafed at any suggestion the district could pull out a sizable amount to help pay for its maintenance backlog, even if combined with money contributed by the County Commission, because of the need to pay up front for grant projects that are reimbursed later in the school year and because state law requires the district keep several weeks' worth of cash flow for operating expenses.

Coppinger, for his part, boasted of the county's rare AAA bond rating because of its $91-$92 million balance, intimated the importance of maintaining the balance to keep that rating and testified how the county was required to keep a similar cache for operating expenses.

Also hanging around the conversation were the $700,000 in bond money commissioners are allowed to spend on school projects this year and the $3-$4-plus million the district is expected to receive from the pending sale of East Brainerd Elementary School.

Fortunately, the meeting also had its forthright attendees, those willing to stick their necks out and suggest compromise.

- County Commissioner Greg Martin, as he did in a recent commission meeting, suggested taking the bond money, the potential East Brainerd sale money and funding the needed repair of school building roofs.

- County Commissioner Joe Graham suggested the district take a sizable chunk of its fund balance and combine it with the potential East Brainerd sale money to fund roofs, electrical issues and other problems that would put a dent in the district's maintenance backlog.

- Martin, later, trying to find common ground with Jordan, who did not want to have to borrow money from the county as the district once did, suggested the county might see its way to offering a low interest rate if it ever came to that.

- School board member Tiffanie Robinson, weary of unproductive meetings, suggested a long-term plan for capital projects and a general strategic plan for the schools going forward.

- Three school board members, Rhonda Thurman, Karitsa Mosley Jones and Robinson, said they were proponents of open enrollment.

Although the meeting ended with no resolution for specific action except to meet again, a second meeting on an issue so critical as public education is a step forward. And since it's apparent no money will be reserved in the county's fiscal 2018 budget for new school construction, it's incumbent for the bodies to prove to Hamilton County taxpayers the governing bodies are not, as Jones said, trying to become like "The Jetsons" while living like "The Flintstones."

Indeed, we want to believe beneath last week's wrangling, there is a commitment to action. And we hope members of both boards are as eager to get to it as the boy in the oft-told anecdote by former President Ronald Reagan who, despite receiving a giant pile of manure for Christmas, was eager to dig through it because "with all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere."

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