Not one of the elected politicians in the room would dare admit it, but what really matters is that not a one of them will deny it -- Hamilton County is doubtlessly barreling towards the first tax increase in the last 12 years. The Hamilton County Commission met with the beleaguered Hamilton County School Board Tuesday night in a joint meeting to confront the crisis in our public schools and the result is inevitable. There is no other option.
The meeting, long overdue but not nearly as tardy as a common-sense tax hike, was positive for the most part; no one at the table could dispute our aging system is in a bad state of repair.
There were several ideas how to render some immediate help – albeit miniscule -- for the $200-plus million boondoggle. But after several dysfunctional school superintendents and sheepish collection of school board members that has never held the parade of ‘supers’ accountable, the could-care-less county commissioners have in turn allowed such a wide-ranging catastrophe to fester until the county’s Department of Education is no longer a “quick fix.”
Commissioner Joe Graham came up with what appeared to be a $40 million “Band-aid” of sorts but – please – some repair items on an “urgent list” from five years ago have yet to be touched. We have no new schools being built, no superintendent in over a year, lawsuits now totaling close to a dozen, communities ready to leave, and – hello – the search firm hired for $65-grand wonders why more applicants haven’t applied. Honestly … are you kidding me!
Here’s a bigger eye-opener -- if our county school system has been allowed to decay to the point the health board could quite literally close several schools on a whim, the people of Hamilton County must come to grips with the stark reality that all of county government has been forced to endure the same drought for more than a decade. Ask anybody in any county department – penny wise, pound foolish, and it is easy to see.
Economics: No additional tax money means no additional income in any municipality in the United States. No additional income – given time -- means any and all services shrink. With inflation, there is no way they can’t fail. Multiple that by 12 and I don’t care what anyone tries to tell you: our schools are worse by every gauge since the last tax increase.
If that surprises you then do this experiment: eat 3 percent less food in each consecutive year for the next dozen years and see if anybody calls you skinny. County Mayor Jim Coppinger said last night his financial staff has slashed the budget to the point that every department the county funds now suffers. That’s no boast for a mayor. To “suffer” while serving the people is absolutely not government’s purpose and to balk at reason is folly. I believe Coppinger may be the best ever, but until he delivers the best standard-of-living instead of “one more term,” the jury is out.
I am being dead honest. The county commissioners and school board members think that if they raise taxes to meet our present-day necessities they will not be re-elected but I’ll go you one better: On behalf of the parents of 42,000 children who have no choice but to attend schools in disrepair, I’m willing to bet any politician who doesn’t do the right thing pretty “DQ” (darn quick) for our county will be voted out of office instead.
Ever since an Ooltewah High basketball player was raped in December of 2015, our public education system has undergone extreme scrutiny. We’ve learned our Department of Education is woefully failing children as early as the third-grade, and that 65 percent of our graduates must take remedial classes before they can take regular courses at Chattanooga State.
We’ve found the leadership in the school system has been every bit as poor. The last three superintendents – to put it nicely – all left prematurely, each under a cloud. In Chattanooga it was long believed we spent more per student than any other metro district in the state. No more -- because our schools are now so underfunded, the 2016 state figures show Hamilton County is now the worst Metro district. (Memphis $11,935; Nashville $11,728; Knoxville $9,980, Chattanooga $9,728.)
The people we elected to the County Commission and the School Board are not doing their elected tasks, to do what is best for the constituents they serve. That is harsh but each knows that it is true. Why? There is not enough money to fulfill their election-day promises and it is driving school board members crazy. It is technically impossible; Look at the evidence, and the evidence is everywhere throughout the school system if you’ll look.
I can guarantee you that in previous years the people of Hamilton County have positioned public education low on the food chain but with a newfound awareness, the disregard for education and the children it serves will now cost a politician a seat on any council. (Chattanooga’s City Council is exempt because the city of Chattanooga does “zero to help,” according to several county commissioners.)
It is expected that some $55 million in bond money could soon become available for new school construction. In the past “a gentleman’s agreement,” of sorts, has allowed Mayor Coppinger to use retired debt to finance over $130 million in school construction in a line-of-credit fashion.
While no one is ready to say, the odds are that some of the money will be used to rebuild Harrison Elementary and provide an addition to Snow Hill Elementary. But despite a frenzied plea for the magnet Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, the far greater need is in the Ooltewah area where most schools are already over 100-percent capacity.
The word around the campfire is that it will take 3-4 years to build a new Harrison and construct a middle school in the midst of a construction boom so the endangered Harrison would move to the top of the repair list so it can weather at least three more school years. This is reality and this is now.
CSLA’s chances of a new school are now dashed because if the fire marshal closed CSLA tomorrow, the students would return to where they were originally zoned. A possible compromise that is being privately whispered would move CSLA to the sprawling Brainerd High campus on North Moore Road. CSLA now has 454 students with a waiting list of over 1,000.
Brainerd, which was built for 1,131, has fallen to 50 percent occupancy and the change would enable CSLA to accept more students immediately. The 569 students who now attend Brainerd would be split between Tyner Academy (529 students at 66 percent occupancy) and East Ridge (838 students at 75 percent occupancy.)
The School Board will hold its quarterly meeting this Thursday. The County Commission has indicated it wants to help, to be part of the solution. But does that mean having the courage to do the right thing, raise taxes for the first time in a dozen years? Oh, what a mantle a politician must wear.
What a test to prove a public servant’s worth.