Abandoning the School Business?

A small war of words erupts over where the new superintendent will send his kids to school

Incoming Knox County School Superintendent Jim McIntyre got a firsthand taste of the county's fractious and geographically fractured politics this month. Where the new super would send his sons to school became a topic of some speculation, and even an outright lobbying effort on the part of Fourth and Gill. The neighborhood association sent McIntyre a letter formally inviting him to move into the neighborhood. Although the invitation, stating how making a home in the neighborhood would "provide you with important insight and credibility in addressing the many education opportunities and challenges for Knox County's urban communities," was as much a politely worded shot across the bow as anything else.

Senior school board member Sam Anderson was a good bit more blunt. In the News Sentinel, Anderson opined that McIntyre shouldn't consider Farragut since the town "shortchanges the school system" by contributing only 50 percent of its sales-tax revenue—the state required minimum—to the school system, compared to the 72 percent kicked in by both Knox County and the City of Knoxville. The comment sparked some controversy, as former Knox County Republican Party chairman, past school board member, and political blogger Brian Hornback accused Anderson of "spewing hate." Not to be outdone, Hornback went on to accuse Anderson of "redlining," a pointed choice of words that was particularly odious considering that, in Anderson's East Knoxville home turf, the financial discrimination of redlining was once a reality rather than an overwrought rhetorical flourish.

True, Anderson's statement wasn't the most tactful. But the substance of it wasn't untruthful. The fact that Farragut contributes a lower percentage of sales-tax receipts to the school system is just that—a fact. It's also one that Hornback's screed left unaddressed. Hornback does, however, suggest the hypothetical situation that maybe the super shouldn't live inside Anderson's school board district or Fourth and Gill "because as city residents they abandoned the school business."

As a former school board member (how I'd love to know McIntyre's reaction to that particular piece of news) Hornback knows that's hogwash. City residents are also county residents, paying the exact same county tax rate as people in Farragut, in addition to a larger percentage of their sales taxes. So, while city government may not be officially in the school business anymore, city residents certainly are. And, as citizens of Knox County, they have always paid taxes to support county schools, even when their kids couldn't attend them. That's a century's worth of revenue that Hornback conveniently overlooks when he calls on readers to "review what (the city) gave to the county."

At least Hornback doesn't trot out the tired old "yes, but folks in Farragut pay more in property taxes" argument. The tax rate is the same countywide. An individual homeowner's county tax bill out in Farragut may be higher, but that's not due to some government conspiracy. Instead, it is simply a function of property values, which are largely a reflection of that age-old homebuyer's question: "What are the schools like?"

Still, putting myself in a Farragut parent's place, I can understand the attitude. After all, they do pay a lot of property taxes. Shouldn't they expect schools that correspond to the expenditure? The same sentiment, however much Hornback would be loath to admit it, is buried within the Fourth and Gill letter when it talks about the "challenges for Knoxville's urban communities." After all, appraisals per square foot have reached the point where Fourth and Gill homeowners are paying as much for their underperforming schools as folks out in Farragut pay for their schools. (The town of Farragut's website, by the way, trumpets its "Great Knox County and private schools" immediately after bragging it "has no real estate taxes for homeowners."). In fact, once the city's greater sales-tax contribution is factored in, Fourth and Gill homeowners are probably paying more.

Ed. Note: This column was previously named "Commentary," a nondescript label that did it little service.