Decosimo: Time to face up to education needs

Decosimo: Time to face up to education needs

May 22nd, 2019 by Nick Decosimo in Opinion Columns
Nick Decosimo

Nick Decosimo

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

The Hamilton County Schools' budget proposal has generated a number of comments in the last week or so, not least from my own brothers. My direct involvement with the Hamilton County Department of Education goes back about 25 years when my wife and I did what we could to assure that our son's experience with the HCDE special education department produced a good outcome. On the whole, it did. Additionally, for more than 40 years, I've been involved with efforts to assist our schools through the Chamber of Commerce, United Way, ArtsBuild and, most recently, the budget working group assembled at the request of Mayor Jim Coppinger.

For those who have commented on the budget, one of the most common themes is that, for the number of students in our system, we have a lot of schools. Strangely, though, people who are aware of that fact then proceed to compare the cost per student for Hamilton County with the cost per student of school systems that have substantially more students per school. Below are some relevant comparisons:

The correlation is pretty obvious: the more students per school, the lower the cost per student. Why do school systems with more students per school spend less per student? Fewer schools require fewer principals, fewer teachers, fewer maintenance people, fewer administrative people, etc. So wouldn't it make more sense to compare Hamilton County to Shelby County or Metro Nashville instead of Rutherford County? But then we're left wondering how we do so much with so little.

Of course, there are other factors influencing cost per student. For instance, districts with heavy concentrations of economically disadvantaged students, such as Hamiton or Shelby counties, require more resources. Knox County, for instance, spends about $9,556 per student but averages almost 680 students per school (22% higher than HCDE) and has only 40% of its students classified as economically disadvantaged while Hamilton County has more than 60% who are economically disadvantaged.

The criticism of the proposed budget increase seems to be based on the proposition that, until the HCDE improves its efficiency and outcomes, it doesn't deserve an increase in funding. However, until HCDE rationalizes its infrastructure, i.e., reduces and consolidates buildings, just about every factor necessary to improve cost per student militates against that desired improvement.

Document: By the numbers - school spending

By the numbers

The people who made the decisions that got us here are long gone. Having no one to blame for the fix we're in is probably a good thing since it solves nothing. On the other hand, we're all responsible for not having dealt with this problem in all of the years that, as a community, we've sought to improve our schools.

The solution will be expensive. Building 10 new schools, for instance, could cost $500 million. If each of those new schools eliminated two existing schools, HCDE would still be under the student-per-school metric of the school systems to which it is being compared.

HCDE has hired a consulting firm to provide an independent, fact-based opinion on a number of facilities issues, including the number of schools needed and where they should be located. Let's get on with fixing this problem once we have that report. Meanwhile, the way we've chosen to function until now has been to penalize our schools' leadership for not operating as efficiently as school districts that are structured efficiently while refusing to spend the resources to create those efficiencies. In this environment, it's amazing that Superintendent Bryan Johnson and his team have had the success they've achieved.

The "let's not and say we did" approach has gone on too long.

Contact Nick Decosimo, a shareholder at Elliott Davis, at

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315