A haunted school system

A haunted school system

May 15th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Members of the Hamilton County Commission persistently neglect the public work their constituents need most - a county government with an urban charter, municipal-style ordinances, comprehensive growth planning and cost-efficient consolidated services and utilities. But they are all too happy to meddle in the county school board's business and to use their budget clout to bend the school board to their agenda.

That was evident when the commission decided several months ago to withhold $7 million in payments-in-lieu of school fund property taxes for VW-related growth this year, pushing the school system's fiscal deficit to nearly $14 million.

It was shamefully evident again last week when the commission's political interference in the school board's budget and administration finally led Superintendent Dr. Jim Scales to agree to a buyout of his contract this year, a year before it was to expire.

And it was blatantly punctuated by commissioners' tasteless uniform advice to the school board, a day after Scales' announcement, to replace Scales with a local candidate - i.e., Rick Smith, an assistant superintendent, and the white man they have wanted since before Scales, the merged schools system's first African-American superintendent, was hired in 2006.

Meddling deeply rooted

The commission's pressure and influence over the school board, though wrongful, flow from the era when county commissioners appointed school board members from their districts, and directed their patronage hiring clout, until the state established independently elected school boards in the 1990s. The commission's influence remains strong, however, because county government holds the purse strings to funding for over a third of the school system's budget.

In political terms, the commission's interference in the school board's work has long been led by Commissioner Fred Skillern and reinforced by his rising crop of disciples - Joe Graham and Chester Bankston on the commission, and his protégé, Rhonda Thurman, and her crowd on the school board.

Powerful political linkage

They now swing a majority on both the nine-member commission and the nine-member school board.

Thurman's school board faction - reinforced in last year's school board elections by the addition of David Testerman, Mike Evatt and possibly Joe Galloway - included chairman Everett Fairchild in the case of Scales. All have all been in accord on pushing Scales out of the superintendent's slot. Their anti-Scales bias mirrors the earlier Skillern faction on the County Commission, which denied new school funding from 1999 until 2005 in the effort to force Scale's predecessor, Dr. Jesse Register, to consent to a buyout of his contract. Register was subsequently hired to run the much larger Metro Nashville school system.

The linkage between the regressive forces on the commission and school board rests on their bias - originally Skillern's bias - against efforts by Register, and maintained by Scales, to give significant focus to urban schools and the county's large portion of black students.

That effort, including magnet schools, personnel shifts and the assistance of the Public Education Foundation, has been imminently fair and sorely needed. Urban achievement levels badly lagged those in the suburban, largely white schools that Skillern, a Soddy-Daisy resident, has favored since his stint decades ago on the old county school board, long before the separate city and county school boards were merged in 1997.

Skillern's bias against magnet schools and a fairer urban focus, a cause Thurman has promoted since she joined the school board, has always been tinged by the sort of racism that long prevented the merger of the former city and county school systems. It was the clearly transparent reason for Skillern's opposition to increased funding under Register.

Significant history

In the county's 2004 budget hearings, for example, Skillern led a 5-4 vote to defeat former County Mayor Claude Ramsey's proposal for a 56-cents tax increase for schools - a proposal patiently guided by Ramsey in a comprehensive, year-long school-summit process to build consensus support for a more adequate school budget. The defeat killed the summit's momentum and recommendations.

Prior to that vote, Skillern had acknowledged that he had met privately with some of the commissioners, in violation of the Sunshine law, to woo them to his side, hosting them to a barbecue at his home to win their support. When asked by this page's editor after the budget vote, and in front of Ramsey in the rotunda at the county courthouse, why he had not also invited the three black members then on the commission to his house to discuss the tax increase, he said with a laugh that he didn't think he could "cook barbecue like them n------."

His offensive remark reflected the racism that had long been evident in the division of school funds and resources prior to the merger of the two former school systems. That racism still seems to taint the opposition of some commissioners and school board members to the way staffing, curriculum and programs have been designed under the two superintendents who have presided since the merger.

Magnet schools, minority-to-majority school transfers, pre-school and after-school initiatives and a focus on improving school services and training serve a valid purpose in mitigating the educational and social issues that hinder minority students. Yet some commissioners and school board members seem all-too-willing to jettison such programs without regard for the disparate impact on minorities.

Effects of latent racism

It might be unfair to broadly assign racism per se to the animus among certain commission and school board members toward Register and Scales and some of the initiatives they have nurtured. Yet the signs suggest a latent racism that cannot be overlooked.

To put a halt to that, commissioners should pledge, at last, to take a hands-off approach to the school board's business, and allow the independent board to pick a new superintendent without their insider meddling. That's probably too much to hope for. But if commissioners turned their energy to broader initiatives for a charter and the creation of a forward-looking urban county government, they might become absorbed in larger goals, and finally realize the need an inclusive school system that serves all students equally well.