After a week and a half of closed schools, the Sumner County Board of Education voted 10-1 to reopen the county school system on Thursday, Aug. 16. The vote came on the recommendation of Director of Schools Dr. Del R. Phillips, III, who called for the reopening despite the fact the school budget could still need as much as $1.9 million in cuts. The board did not discuss specific cuts, but Phillips said personnel cuts - including teachers - were likely.
Phillips began the meeting with a call for a long-term solution for what he considers a long-term problem. “For the school system we’re going to have to figure out together how to navigate that course,” he said as he warned of the difficulty in planning and building an excellent school system with “trauma” like the budget debate happening every year.
“I think it’s just time for a gut-check in the community and make sure we’re committed to what we say we’re committed to,” said Phillips.
However, he made clear that he believed students should be back in the classroom as soon as possible, citing concerns over TCAP testing, teacher evaluations, mid-term testing, and dual-enrollment courses.
The Commission meets next Monday, and Phillips hopes they will find additional funding to prevent layoffs.
Board member Glen Gregory agreed with Phillips that no one should be surprised by the situation this year. “The reason for it is this is the fourth year of all the budget issues... This should not have been a surprise to anyone, because Dr. Phillips stood on the floor a year ago and said ‘next year will be much worse’, and it has been.”
Gregory also warned that good teachers were leaving because of Sumner’s relatively low pay.
Ted Wise struck a determined tone. “Thank you, commissioners who have supported us. For a warning for commissioners who have not - I’m going to be in your face. It’s going to be kind; it’s going to be nice, but I want to remind you the best economic impact on a county is its education system.” Added Wise, twice: “We are going to get more funding.”
Tim Brewer also supported the recommendation, although he expressed his reservations about how the process turned out. “Unfortunately the majority of our funding source thinks mediocrity and status quo is okay for Sumner County... but that’s what we have.”
The budget process was personal for board member Andy Daniels, who related how he told his uncle and sister who work for the district that they might have to try to get a new job elsewhere, and how he has had to tell school employees to “suck it up” for one more year. “But what makes it worthwhile is looking out there being able to stand with a group of people so dedicated to doing what’s best for this county... it’s really amazing to see the passion this county has had for education.”
One by the one the board members voiced their support behind Phillips’ recommendation to begin the school year. Many, like Shannon Dunn, were uneasy in approving the recommendation without knowing which, if any, employees would be cut. Ultimately, Dunn’s concerns kept her from supporting the recommendation.
Dunn also took issue with the extra $3 million allocated to the school general budget from the capital improvement fund. “It’s kind of like saying to someone: ‘you’ve got $100 in your bank account, go buy yourself something nice... They didn’t increase our budget, they didn’t give us any more money.”
The District Five representative said the budget impasse was not about who wins, but finding the best resolution for students. “It’s not about who’s winning, because no one is winning right now.”
“If you thought this was going to be a sprint you didn’t have the correct outlook. This is a marathon,” said Phillips. “We’re starting school because we feel that is the right thing to do for the students.”
“Why wouldn’t we provide the absolute best that we could provide?” asked Chairman Don Long. “It seems like we have accepted the fact that ‘good enough’ is good enough, and I don’t think ‘good enough’ is good enough... We’re not providing the tools for our teacher to do the best that they can.”
Long also challenged the claim by some County Commissioners that Sumner County constituents are opposed to any tax increase. Long noted that those who opposed tax increases represented only a handful at the commission meetings regarding this issue, while the vast majority raised their hands in support of increased taxes for school funding. According to Long a survey of 150 Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce members almost 70% supported higher taxes, a sentiment Long says is shared by a representative of 700 Sumner real estate agents.
“So if the Commission is being overwhelmed with people telling them not to do that, where are they?” Added Long: “It’s troubling that a county able to do so much is willing to do so little.”
After the 10-1 roll call vote to reopen schools, County Executive Anthony Holt was encouraged by the decision, and called for greater unity between the board and commission. He expressed hope the commission would once again put a wheel tax initiative on the November ballot. “I encourage our County Commissioners and Board Members to get together and become very proactive and start working for a game plan for next year. We can’t have this happening every year.”
Explaining her sole dissenting vote, Dunn said, “I don’t feel comfortable with us opening the doors and not knowing where these cuts are going to come from, but we do know we’re going to have to cut.”
By Corey Conley