School board shifts position

School board shifts position

July 16th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The turnover of school superintendents has not changed the challenges that confront the Hamilton County school system. It has, however, visibly changed the tenor and tack of school board members who previously gave no support to Dr. Jim Scales, but now provide it to his replacement, Rick Smith.

Last week, for example, board chairman Mike Evatt, who wrote the terms for the buyout of Dr. Scales' contract, praised the new state report that showed standardized test scores in Hamilton County schools improved in all subject areas last year in grades three through eight. Though he gave no credit for the improved scores to Dr. Scales' administration for keeping the system's focus on support for teachers in four lean budget years, he called the report of test improvement "great news."

That was no exaggeration. The percentage of students who earned proficient or advanced scores rose 6.9 percent over the previous year in math, 3.9 percent higher in reading, 4 percent higher in science, and 1.5 percent higher in social studies.

Then on Thursday, Evatt teamed with Smith in support of a proposal to ask the County Commission to release several million dollars in PILOT funds to the school system. These are payments-in-lieu-of-taxes that are collected for schools when other property taxes are abated to lure new industries, such as Volkswagen and its supplier plants.

Scales rightly sought the new PILOT funds, but when the County Commission wrongly withheld them, the school board members who opposed Scales also failed to support his demand for the school-dedicated funds.

Owing to this lack of support from five of the nine school board members, Scales was forced to draw up a budget that cut $14 million for the new fiscal year. Smith has just introduced a budget that would cut $18 million. But he said Thursday that he would cut less than that if he and the board can persuade the county to turn over the new PILOT funds.

Evatt told the board he had spoken to several commissioners and was optimistic that they may release the PILOT funds. "Once they see we are doing what is right, they may say 'OK'," he said.

School advocates should welcome the shift of Evatt and, presumably, other board members who had failed to support Scales' request for the PILOT funds. The system clearly needs the money. It is still short the second $12.5 million in annual state BEP funding that has been promised by state government since 2007.

Gov. Bill Haslam told this page months ago that he presently sees no way to provide Hamilton County schools the second half of the $25 million expansion in state school funding due to the post-recession decline in state revenues. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen initiated the $25 million adjustment in 2007 to equitably balance state school funding and pull up Hamilton County, which had been dead last in state per-pupil funding.

But Bredesen withheld the second $12.5 million annual installment in redistribution of BEP funds for Hamilton County schools due to the recession that hit in 2008 and the resulting sharp decline of state revenue. The continuing inequity nonetheless continues to harm this county's students.

The state's funding shortfall, coupled with the County Commission's refusal to provide a periodic property tax increase for schools, forced Scales to whack $30 million from a status quo budget over the past four years. It's past time for the school board and the County Commission to improve funding for the school system to avoid the cuts in teaching and staff positions and building maintenance that Scales, and now Smith, had to propose.

That makes it all the more notable that county commissioners and the anti-Scales faction of the school board would not seek better funding until they hounded Scales out of office, and now they might since Scales is gone. Their differing responses is a telling commentary on their integrity and principles with respect to their public responsibilities for the school system.