|Commission adds $2.2 million to education funding|
|Monday, August 6, 2012|
The Sumner County Commission voted 14-9 after three hours of discussion in Special Called Emergency Meetings to add $2.2 million in capital spending to the total education appropriation of $234,359,584. The General Purpose funding of $190,224,435 remains the same.
A second part of the Budget Committee motion presented by Budget Chairman Kirk Moser tagged the funding to capital outlay items in the School Board’s current request. It would go for items with a life longer than one year, such as textbooks or education software.
A third part of the motion requested the School Board to open schools immediately or the county may take whatever action is necessary to open them. That includes asking the state to take over the school system and/or request a writ of mandamus (extraordinary compulsory order) from Chancery Court.Those voting in favor were Comms. Mike Akins, Frank Freels, Billy Geminden, Steve Graves, Mike Guthrie, Merrol Hyde, Joe Matthews, Moser, Bob Pospisil, David Satterfield, Jo Skidmore, Jerry Stone, Shawn Utley, and Jim Vaughn. Those voting against were Comms. Paige Brown, Paul Decker, Paul Freels, Paul Goode, Ben Harris, Chris Hughes, David Kimbrough, Baker Ring, and Moe Taylor.
The funding falls some $5.4 million short of the School Board’s desire for $197,832,338 of general purpose funding before the $2.2 million was funded from capital outlay. Supporters of “a fully funded budget” said they wanted the $198 million request funded but that it was still not enough and more would be needed later.
“Basically we are in the same position we were in last year,” Phillips said after the meeting. “We are looking for a long-term solution, not a year-after-year, keeping the school system basically in trauma.” The phones at the Board of Education had a recording Thursday that stated that due to the Board’s recent action they were experiencing a significant increase in call volume.
He had no indication when schools would open and no news of a special called school board meeting had been released by press time.
Four Nashville broadcast TV stations were on hand earlier in the day, preparing for a quickly organized pro-tax rally. Hundreds gathered at the County Administration Building before 4:30, filling the parking lots. As county employees started to leave for the day, those spaces were immediately filled. Cars were parked in nearby lots and up and down Tulip Poplar Drive.
A newly energized group sprang up over the weekend called Strong Schools after the School Board voted in a Special Called Meeting on Election night not to open schools Monday (Aug. 6). The founder is Andy Spears, Ph.D., a former Press Secretary for the Senate Democratic Caucus with extensive media contacts. Another organizer is Maria Brewer, the Democratic nominee for Senate District 18, who also has media experience.
“It’s a three-point plan,” Brewer explained in an advance email from Strong Schools. “First, open the schools this year by using county reserve funds. Next, create a panel of Commissioners and Board members to implement a long-term solution for adequately funded schools. Finally, we’re asking the School Board to submit the 2013-14 budget by April 15to avoid the ‘crisis budgeting’ that has become the norm in our community. It really is that simple.”
Asked about the $2.2 million being insufficient to fully fund what the School Board wanted, Brewer responded: “We’ve got over 700 people in Sumner County who stated they want the schools open and they want the schools strong.”
When it was pointed out that 700 is really not that many people from a county with a population of over 160,000 and that the turnout had been orchestrated over a weekend before the other side knew to mobilize, Brewer said they had only been collecting petitions for less than 36 hours.
“What the petitions demonstrate is people’s willingness to stand up and let their views be known. The takeaway is that we’ve not done what we need to do,” Brewer stated.
Brewer was one of some 14 speakers who addressed the Commission under a three-minute limit. Clerk Bill Kemp warned speakers when they got to the 30-second mark and when they were running out of time. However, no one who ran out the clock was cut off but quickly concluded by closing their remarks. Twelve were for full funding and more taxes; two were not. Many of those who were for the tax increase indicated they would directly or indirectly benefit from it.
The local Tea Party group Sumner United for Responsible Government had expected the maneuver but appeared unprepared on short notice to mount a countermove. Jim Egan, a retiree who covers local government for SURG, spoke against it. However, most of its most fervent adherents are anti-tax people who are not tied to government schedules. While the sudden shutting down of schools freed a large number of pro-tax supporters to rally, it left those working for private companies at a significant disadvantage because they did not have the day off to respond. Only its retiree corps was able to muster to their cause.
During the regularly scheduled 5 p.m. Emergency Services Committee meeting, Emergency Management Agency was skipped on the agenda because it was noted EMA was busy outside keeping the situation under control. Sheriff’s Deputies were brought in early on and manned doorways and controlled access to the Chamber, with one initially halting Comm. Jo Skidmore when she tried to get into the chamber from the public foyer instead of through a side door where members and local media were being steered. During the regularly scheduled 5:30 p.m. Education Committee and during the 6 p.m. Emergency Budget Committee meeting, public comments were not allowed, being put off until the full Commission meeting. Education Committee sent the education budget on to Budget Committee who was moved into the already packed chamber.
Budget Chairman Kirk Moser laid out the rules for committee and went through the history of meeting actions between the County Commission and School Board. He pulled out a calendar and timelined recent events.
Moser, an attorney, was visibly irritated by the brinksmanship: “I do not feel there was a need not to open schools. They submitted what they wanted. They didn’t get what they wanted. I want schools open.
“This is silly. This is like two parents fighting over a divorce and putting children in the middle,” he said of students being held hostage. “This is completely unacceptable.
“We have until the 1st of October to work this out. Currently, they are to receive $5 million in new revenue. They want $12 million.”
A number of tax hike and other options failed in recorded votes in committee and in the full commission meeting. At one point, Comm. David Kimbrough chastised Moser without calling his name. Kimbrough noted that in Budget “we heard a lot of use of ‘we and they’” and that there was no place for that because all of the money came from the same pot.
At the 6:30 p.m. County Commission meeting, Chairman Merrol Hyde laid out the ground rules and warned that deputies would automatically eject anyone interrupting the meeting. Later, he noted the Fire Marshall was there and was working with them but at any time could order everyone out who was not seated.
County Finance Director David Lawing was the Commission’s go-to man in the high-pressure situation. Commissioners on both sides of the issue were heard commending his performance after the meeting even though not all agreed with some of his presentation, siding with School Director Dr. Del Phillips.
Phillips stood by his previously presented numbers on per-pupil spending. Lawing stated afterwards that from the school’s financial statements he arrived at the same figure as the state when debt service for schools was included. Those numbers show Sumner County as the second highest in the Middle Tennessee area, second only to Metro and above Williamson County. The two sides were still working to resolve the difference in calculations at press time.
By Jesse Hughes