Letters to the Editor
Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a teacher.
We were discussing the millions of dollars taxpayers spend on our public schools and Fayette County’s per-pupil expenditure of $9,117 a year. She commented, “When I look around my classroom, I don’t see $9,100 per child and it’s sure not reflected in my paycheck. Where is the money going?”
Good question. If the school board can’t show where your money is going, is it entitled to more of it?
One thing is for certain, the money is not finding its way into the classroom where it can provide a direct benefit to students and teachers. Our school system’s financial woes are a culmination of sloppy accounting and mismanagement that has existed for years.
Serving on the County Commission’s Education Committee, I’ve lost count of the financial shenanigans from the school board.
The 2014 audit highlights from the Tennessee Comptroller’s office show “deficiencies in its budget operations.” This only scratches the surface. However, it sheds light on a culture of mismanagement and wasteful spending that has existed for years.
For example, between 2007 and 2009 a food service supervisor circumvented purchasing procedures resulting in a cash shortage of $142,433. Furthermore, the supervisor altered time sheets resulting in an additional shortage of $35,196. This impropriety resulted in three individuals accepting plea agreements. Full restitution has not been made.
Taxpayers were promised hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings if the county commission purchased the Edulog transportation software. The savings would be allocated to raising teacher salaries, improved classroom internet and computer upgrades. The county commission purchased the software, handed it over to the school system and the savings never materialized.
During the 2012-13 school year, $197,000 in grant money was spent illegally and had to be repaid to the state.
Furthermore, the county commission had to pay bus leases the school board could not make. This was because the previous, and some current, school board members were asleep at the wheel when Dr. Gray, the former Director of Schools, doled out inflated salaries and lucrative bonuses to his administrative staff to the tune of over $800,000.
Also, taxpayers were promised operational savings of $563,568 annually from closing four elementary schools. Information provided to the county commission by the school board stated the reduction in staff would free up revenue that would be allocated to classroom improvements and raising teacher salaries.
Last month, a school board member addressed a joint committee meeting of the county commission. He stated the number of teachers have been reduced from 320 to 290. If this is correct, this reduction in teaching staff would generate over $1.2 million in savings based on an average teacher salary of $41,150. Not one word was uttered from the school board about using these savings to boost teacher salaries.
In addition to the projected operational savings was the claim our schools would capture more state funding that previously had been forfeited due to the operation of underutilized schools. The school board has not shown where this new money, if it exists, will be spent.
Like a teenager at the mall who maxed out their first credit card, our school board wants more money. They are asking taxpayers to accept a 15-percent property tax increase so they can “invest” another $2.3 million in our schools and provide raises for our teachers. Extracting more money from the productive, private sector so it can be spent by the inefficient, public sector makes about as much sense as Common Core math.
When you find yourself in a hole the first thing you need to do is stop digging. With a budget of almost $30 million in revenue it’s difficult to believe there is no money available for teacher raises in the existing budget, sometimes referred to as maintenance of effort.
School board members deflect criticism with an emotionally based “do it for the kids” argument. Then they accuse county commissioners who ask tough questions and insist on accountability as being bigots for not supporting “public” schools.
Commissioners offering solutions are quickly told it’s not their job to run the schools, only fund them. A well orchestrated social media campaign is sure to follow laced with inciting comments and half-truths.
The school board’s request for a 15-percent property tax increase creates a couple sub-issues;
1) The county commission raised the county wheel tax to service the bond note on Buckley Carpenter Elementary in Somerville.
2) Fayette County voters have rejected, on two occasions (2012 and 2014), a referendum to raise the county’s portion of the state sales tax. Ballot box returns show the majority of Fayette County residents oppose higher taxes.
It would be wrong to raise property taxes to generate more revenue when the existing revenue is not being allocated appropriately.
Our schools don’t have a funding problem. They have an accountability problem.
Fayette County Commissioner District 4
As most citizens who have been following the school board’s request for more funding from the county commission are aware, the commission has decided unanimously to maintain the Maintenance of Effort at the same level as last year.
We came to this decision for a variety of reasons, but it was not because of bigotry, stinginess, or shortsightedness.
We have worked with the school board recently in building a new school, paying for school bus payments when their funds were short after some questionable spending.
We also increased the Maintenance of Effort very recently. There have been other expenses of very large amounts by the school board that one could challenge and debate but that would help no one.
At this point in time the school board and county commission should work on building a working relationship that will benefit all of the citizens of Fayette County.
Was it wise for the school board to draft a resolution which request a very large sum of taxpayer dollars and then trash the county commission publicly when it was rejected unanimously?
The board failed to get public support behind the effort and has not built much support to date for this resolution. The county commission has a fiduciary responsibility to all county residents, just as the school board does.
To be very honest the school board’s track record is checkered in being responsible with the citizen’s money and it will take time to build trust. That is only natural.
Attempting to get a raise in a “my way or the highway” mentality is not the wisest choice. Disparaging the people who have been working with you only makes matters worse.
We hope the school board members who have used the tactics mentioned will take time to reflect on where the commission and board has worked together in the past few years and will return to a mind set that will benefit the students and taxpayers of our great county!
Fayette County Commissioner
About Graham Sweeney
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