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Commissioner Tim Boyd
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Jay Greeson

Our public school system is broken.

That's not opinion or hyperbole.

The ways it's fractured have been well-documented.

With that in mind, I sat in the Hamilton County Commission meeting room Wednesday morning hopeful for something new but remembering too many failed efforts.

We've been down this road before. Many times.

Our educators, who certainly have the best interests of children atop their priorities, say they need more money. Our county commissioners say the educators are mismanaging the money they have.

It's become a frustrating, repetitive cycle.

Wednesday, though, was different — in some ways.

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County Commissioner Tim Boyd presented an action plan — "I'm tired of no one walking the talk," he said — to address the woeful condition of many of our schools' facilities. Those needs are real, not unlike other needs our elected county leaders must address.

But the schools — "Think of the children," for Pete's sake — are the easy talking point. In fact, think of any public stance you may want to take, and if you end your diatribe with "Think of the school kids" or "God Bless the troops," you are golden.

This was the policy version of that, as each person who spoke acknowledged the need for change and the dire straits the school system, and therefore the county, face.

By no measure was the pitch perfect. Far from it. But it was a pitch — a call to action, as Boyd described it.

It was a first pitch to move past hand-wringing and onto a hand-to-hand effort of making change.

It was a pitch to show there could be ways to craft the budget to meet some of the schools' capital needs.

It was a pitch that had some wild details — and let's not get bogged down in the controversial suggestion that CSLA move into the Dalewood Middle School building (and Dalewood students move into Brainerd High) or the suggestion that six of the eight projects that could be paid for with new bond money were for athletic facilities. It was a pitch nonetheless. And to that end, the fact that it was a pitch — an action verb, mind you — rather than a meeting, a conversation or a sound bite, equates to progress.

To be fair, this was not a pitch from the commission's finance committee. It was Boyd's brainstorm. Yes, he included some of his favorite targets in the county budget cutting/reallocating process (Convention and Visitors Bureau, Read 20, Enterprise South Nature Park, the Humane Educational Society, among others).

That's OK, as long as this is the first volley of what should be an engaging back-and-forth among elected leaders and school system bigwigs.

No idea should be shunned.

We know County Mayor Jim Coppinger and his staff are charged with developing a budget every year. For years, they have met the county's growing needs with the limited increases provided by natural revenue growth (and no tax increase in 12 years).

It's clear commissioners — at least those who voiced cautious support for Boyd's pitch — are willing to find any way possible to address school facility needs without being the elected officials tagged with raising taxes.

That makes sense, but perhaps a tax increase — not unlike every other idea out there — needs to be considered, too.

What's the next step? Who knows, but we can say the first step has been made. Boyd's proposal pushed the ball down the field.

Here's hoping that from here, no one involved will be worried more about their thin skins (or next election) than the overarching need to improve our schools.

And that goal — whether it costs commissioners, school board members or the current leadership at Bonny Oaks their jobs — has to be the ultimate prize at the finish line.

And oh yes, God bless the troops.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com and 423-757-6343.

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