School Budget Obfuscation

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All hell has broken loose about improper accounting for tens of thousands of dollars in expense allowances paid to Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale and his chief aides. Yet scarcely any attention has been paid to the propriety of upwards of $10 million in annual school expenses that are nowhere to be found in the school systemâ’s budget.

While I believe that all of these school outlays are worthy, the way in which they are being made fails to adhere to any standard of truth and transparency in budgeting. County Commission has gone along with all the obfuscation, but commissioners and the public should be able to readily ascertain that public-school spending in the current fiscal year is more like $370 million rather than the $357.4 million shown in the school systemâ’s budget.

Rectification of this gap calls for shifting the missing money from the countyâ’s general ledgers where itâ’s now domiciledâ"some visibly, some not. However, that in turn would call for a reallocation of county revenues to schoolsâ"something Ragsdale has been loath to do. But given the permanence of the programs and the facilities funded by these revenues, and given the impermanence of the faltering Ragsdale administration, it becomes imperative for the school board and school administrators to know that their commitments can be sustained. And from the publicâ’s standpoint, itâ’s equally imperative to hold the school system accountable for how taxpayersâ’ dollars get spent.

There are two major components of the more than $12 million thatâ’s missing from the school budget. One is the $6.4 million appropriated this year to whatâ’s known as the Great Schools Partnership that Ragsdale superimposed upon the school system in the name of fulfilling his â“Every School a Great Schoolâ” mantra. The other is roughly $5.8 million in debt service on $70 million in school construction projects that the county assumed in the name of relieving the school system of its traditional obligation to fund new schools and renovations from its own dedicated revenues.

When the Great Schools Partnership was formed in 2004, it was intended to serve as a think tank and incubator for innovative programs that Ragsdale and allied champions of educational enhancement such as Laurens Tullock of the Cornerstone Foundation didnâ’t believe the school system was able or willing to come up with on its own. This was also at a time when former Superintendent Charles Lindsey had alienated and lost credibility with both the mayor and county Commission. So arguably putting money under the purview of the Partnership, was a way of getting additional funding that Commission wouldnâ’t have otherwise approved for schools per se. Because state law requires that the school board determine how all school funds get spent, the board was afforded a veto over the uses of Partnership funds, but school administrators were mostly collaborative.

Now, ironically, itâ’s Ragsdale who has lost credibility with an antagonistic Commission majority at a time when the school board is on its way to selecting a new superintendent who hopefully will restore the trust that Lindsay had lost. Meanwhile, several programs have emerged from the partnership and become part of the school systemâ’s ongoing scheme of things. These include a $1.3 million birth-to-kindergarten program targeting what are euphemistically termed â“at-riskâ” families; $1.5 million for a kindergarten intervention program for unprepared school entrants; and $1.8 million for a Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) that, along with professional development, provides incentive pay for teachers who raise student achievement above a norm. TAP is still in a pilot phase at three center-city schools, and the juryâ’s out on achievement gains. But it or some other form of incentive pay will have to be put in place next year to meet a state mandate to provide teacher pay differentials at so-called hard-to-staff schools.

The president of Pellissippi State, Allen Edwards, has become the chairman of the Partnership, and last week he took the commendable step of recommending to the school board that it be folded into the school system. â“Itâ’s been outside, and the time has come to move it in as weâ’re searching for a new superintendent,â” he said. Indeed, its present construct can only be a hindrance in attracting a new superintendent expected to take the lead in furthering the school systemâ’s progress.

Tullock, who had been a prime architect of keeping partnership research and development funding separate lest it be diverted to other uses, concurred that school-board adoption of a measurable set of student outcome goals called for channeling all funding to the school system to support their realization. Those goals are expressed primarily in terms of high-school graduation rates and ACT scores evidencing preparedness for college and careers.

The same principle that the school system and its elected board members are funded and accountable for its full sphere of responsibilities applies to capital outlays as well. Ragsdaleâ’s penchant to usurp some of these responsibilities through obfuscating purse-string control must be curbed. â" Joe Sullivan

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