The county's interference

The county's interference

November 6th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Will the Hamilton County Commission ever quit trying to control the Hamilton County school board and let board members do the job they were elected to do?

There was a glimmer of hope last fall, when school board elections swung the pendulum of power on the board to a 5-4 reactionary majority. The newly empowered members were aligned with the commission on at least one major issue: They were eager to force the ouster of then-Superintendent Jim Scales. And after they did so, they boldly trashed school board codes that mandated a national search and public interviews to select his successor.

The board's new ruling faction then quickly appointed Rick Smith, a local assistant superintendent who had long waited in the wings for the job despite his lack of a doctoral degree. His appointment seemed sure to finally assuage the Fred Skillern-led faction of the County Commission, which for years had wanted Smith in the job, had wanted to direct the school system's budget and priorities, and had long used the power of the purse to punish the independently elected school board for not bending to its will.

An interlude in meddling

For a brief interim, county commissioners talked as if they were ready to let the school board conduct the business it was created to perform. Indeed, commissioners, citing new confidence in the reformulated board, recently talked about restoring to the board's control millions of dollars annually in PILOT funds. These are the payments-in-lieu-of-taxes that new businesses, like Volkswagen - which have received general property tax abatements for building their plants here - still must pay to support public education.

Alas, the hope that grasping county commissioners could quit interfering with the school board's business has already sunk like a stone. Commissioners affirmed that with their decision last week to take control of any funds the county school board might receive as a result of sales of existing school properties.

The commission asserted that action by voting - on an unscheduled resolution that surprised the school board - to amend a 2004 agreement between the county and the school board regarding authority over the financing and approval of school projects. Language inserted into the agreement by Skillern requires the board to turn over to the county any funds it receives from sales of school property, and to deed to the county any new property and school buildings. Under the agreement, money received by the county for sales of school property would be held in escrow for future school projects.

No wonder school board chairman Mike Evatt complained last week about "the lack of transparency between the commission and the board."

"That's why we feel blind-sided, stepped on and micro-managed," he added.

New power grabs

The County Commission's latest power grab followed the strings it attached a week earlier on the allotment of $50 million in school bonds for construction of two new schools and an addition to another school. In designating that funding, the County Commission also demanded control and approval rights for the design, siting and construction of the new buildings. In both cases, the county's demand for ultimate approval egregiously oversteps the law and thwarts the school board's authority to determine where and how it builds new schools and which neighborhoods, communities and attendance zones they will serve.

The school board should have control of all such decisions, and control of its finances generally. Otherwise, the board is merely a puppet to the County Commission. The law that created elected school boards in Tennessee in the 1990s did not envision that.

Though it denied newly elected Tennessee school boards the authority to raise their own local-revenue share of the school budget by setting the schools' portion of local property tax rates - a method widely used by other states - it vested authority for directing school spending of local revenue in the state's elected school boards. The law said nothing about giving County Commissions the right to approve school boards' spending of the funding that county governments are required to provide them.

Devoted to the puppet era

There's good reason for this division of authority. Before the Legislature created elected school boards, board members were picked by County Commissioners, and in earlier years by their County Council predecessors. Under both forms of county government, county officials used and abused their control over their appointed board members by dictating hiring and patronage jobs in the school systems, and to favor their personal preferences for where and how school funds were spent.

Skillern, who was an appointed school member decades ago, is still devoted to that parochial, self-interested power-and-control scheme. Newer County Commission members wrongly follow and defer to him on school-budget issues.

The Hamilton County School Board should establish control of its operating and capital budgets. But it will have to assert that right, and defend it, if necessary, in court.